The finale of “Palomino,” David Cale’s one-man show now running at The Kansas City Repertory Theatre, is really the beginning.
In ninety minutes, on a virtually empty stage, the playwright-actor-director takes the audience back and forth in time, from Central Park to a London publishing house to the shores of Malta. Like a model pacing up and down a runway in one outfit after another, Cale—using only his voice and his body and, most importantly, both his and our imaginations—puts himself into several characters, both male and female, without ever forgetting his performing self. Theater critics write about “breaking the fourth wall,” stepping off the stage, so to speak, that traditionally separates the artifice from the audience. Here, Cale welcomes the disappearance.
Essentially a monologue, “Palomino” deepens through the use not only of a multi-character “cast” but through Cale’s fully inhabiting each of them. Monologists such as Eric Bogosian and playwrights such as Alan Bennett, in his “Talking Heads” character monologues, usually do all the heavy lifting first: the play’s the thing, as Shakespeare put it; but the writing is the play.
For “Palomino,” Cale must convince the audience that he can be a young Irish cabbie driver named Kieran McGrath who works in Central Park; an older mysterious woman named Marsha, who one night on a ride around the Park suggests a lucrative if suggestive proposal to him; Vallie, a wealthy widow who needs an escort to a swanky dinner; and another woman and two more male characters who play important parts in the waning section of the play.
For such a story of love, loss, desperation and desire, the writing needs to be large and multifaceted. Cale, who has contributed to NPR’s This American Life and performed in his own works, seems to work both from the inside out and outside in, the first as a writer and the second as an actor. Alone onstage, mostly sitting on a stool, Cale drops and adds accents to announce his character changes. Though it takes a while to see where the story / stories are going, when the voices and the stories do come together about three-quarters of the way in the play, the disparate perspectives come into a clear focus, like looking at a Cubist painting until the odd and opposing angles merge into a defined whole.
For Kieran, a wanderer who fancies himself a ladies’ man and a novelist (presumably the two are not automatically connected), the odd assignation with Vallie, which was originally a sex-and-cash arrangement, troubles him when it becomes something more than he can handle. Because he is the first character we encounter, one might think Cale intends for the audience to take his point of view throughout. And the witty, self-deprecating manner in which Cale portrays Kieran does much to represent this notion. But if that were all it was, the female characters might as well be interchangeable, and the play would be nothing more than a variant on a thousand men’s lovesick laments. It is the fact, and the increasingly subtle ways, that the various female characters are introduced and their stories plumbed, which raises “Palomino” into a niche of its own.
Cale’s intent here is to trace the lines of love: when and how and why it prospers (when we know all too often it never does). His interpretations of the middle-aged Marsha and Vallie, as well as a buxom young blond named Trish, are the show’s trickiest aspect to convey: playing women to an audience of women leaves little room for farce or ridicule. I found his mannerisms initially cloying—a bit drag-queeny—yet as he continues to move in and out of their lives it is evident Cale is trying to mine their inner selves, rather than their outer physiques. (It explains why he never changes costumes: the special effects are the script.)
Theater is what happens onstage and in the imagination. With few extra effects, notably a horse’s recorded whinnying and a video monitor behind Cale that changes colors as the story warms up or shifts into high drama, “Palomino” becomes one man’s stories of three women and how these characters crisscross. In the last section, as revelations from earlier are revealed from different characters and, like any good mystery (and aren’t all good mysteries at heart about love?) the answers seem to make things safe, Cale provides that measure of happiness: maybe not after the lights come up, but until then one can dream, yes?
“Palomino” is presented by The Kansas City Repertory Theatre on the Copaken Stage at 14th and Walnut, KCMO. The show runs through November 15. For tickets, call 816-235-2700 or go online at www.kcrep.org.