Attending the Interlochen Arts Academy is not cheap: Tuition at the exclusive Michigan boarding school for the artistically gifted runs easily over $52,000 for the 2014-2015 school year. In 1969, it was much less (around $3,000), but for Monica Bauer's family, which pulled in around $5,000 a year, it was a fortune. She explains how, by hook and by crook, she was able to get that money for her year at Interlochen (the year she was "gifted"). Bauer also details how an artistic decision kept her from coming back the next year, all in her engrossing solo show The Year I Was Gifted, which is now playing Stage Left Studio.
According to Bauer, the arts world is filled with two types of people: the visitors (wealthy and casual dilettantes) and the hungry. She was hungry enough to enter the school as a triple minor in drama, composition, and percussion (the latter of which secured her a large scholarship). She met her new Interlochen best friend, composition major Bill Sherwood, who urged her to focus on composing modern music. Despite her hectic schedule, Bauer noticed that many of the gay students in the school kept disappearing: 34 in total over the course of the year. Sherwood explained that they were probably outed and then expelled at the behest of Mrs. Maddy, the academy's arch-conservative matriarch (and widow of Academy founder Joseph E. Maddy). In response, Bauer composed her end-of-the-year project: a dance piece entitled "Expulsion No. 34," which she performed in front of Maddy and the whole school. Bauer doesn't perform it here, but she does re-create her curtain speech to Mrs. Maddy, which is just as thrilling.
Bauer is not the most natural actor: She has a tendency to shuffle around and mime things that aren't there. Yet her story is compelling enough that it doesn't matter, and her mid-Atlantic WASP-in-training impersonation of Sherwood is a riot.
While Bauer obviously didn't get her scholarship extended after her act of protest, it is clear that she learned something that year that can't be purchased for any amount of tuition money: Real art speaks truth to power, and it can be deadly threatening to the status quo. Can you imagine the national scandal if a gay student were expelled from Interlochen for his sexual orientation today?
Bauer chases her monologue with her solo play Made for Each Other, which starts about an hour after she finishes (both shows are about 55 minutes). Performed by John Fico, it tells the story of Vincent and Jerry, two middle-aged gay men on the precipice of a relationship. Both are haunted by the voices in their heads: Jerry by his puckish deceased Italian grandpa and Vincent by his mother, once a fabulous lady-about-town, now a vegetative Alzheimer's patient. As both men grow older, the necessity to "lock in" a reliable mate becomes more urgent, but if you know that you're going downhill fast, is that a fair prospect for your potential partner?
Fico performs all four characters with committed gusto and lots of heart. You can't help but like him. Still, the story never really gets beyond the feeling of a LOGO movie-of-the-week: The mother and grandfather feel like musty stock characters inserted for cheap laughs. Made for Each Other is undoubtedly the less stimulating of the two pieces, both emotionally and intellectually.
That doesn't mean you shouldn't see both shows. Bauer is an undeniably gifted storyteller with a unique voice and an endlessly fascinating story: She has a master's degree from Yale Divinity School and a PhD in political science. I want to hear the solo show about how that winding career path led her to the theater.