Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2009
“Maybe I should rant and rave on a daily basis. I could take my car down to a quiet spot by the beach, roll up the windows, crank up the stereo, and scream at the windshield until my eyes pop out. There would be a different topic each day. Politics on Mondays. The economy on Tuesdays. Religion on Wednesdays. The environment on Thursdays. Women on Fridays. Five days of hysterics and then rest up on Saturdays and Sundays.”
- Bob Balogh, Bunker Mentality
There’s nothing like a good rant. My younger son says I should start a second Web site and call it GailRantz just to distinguish my reviews from my rants, which isn’t always easy, especially this season.
Bob Balogh likes to rant too, and he likes to do it on stage, which is good. Of course “stage” is a relative term here, he performed Bunker Mentality in a corner of the Art on No (Artists on North Street) Gallery, which isn’t on North Street at all but around the corner on Union Street, across from the Barrington Stage Company Main Stage and right next door to an intriguing place called Mary’s Carrot Cake, which, alas, was closed at 6:30 p.m. when I arrived.
But a stage is not necessary for an act of theatre to be presented, and Balogh’s writing has a strong theatrical sense even if its flow isn’t always linear. I have had a couple of rants this season already about the need for some kind of dramatic progression to take place in order for a piece of theatre to become a drama, and Balogh’s 55-minute, one-man show show Bunker Mentality displayed a better sense of that than Jonathan Marc Sherman’s Knickerbocker. Balogh’s protagonist Frank Krank may never tell us his name, but we understand pretty clearly where he’s been (to Vietnam and back, through several relationships, and to a couple of ball games at Wahconah Park) and where he’s headed (for an extended stay in a small room at the fictional Massachusetts Ailing Soldiers Home.)
Krank is mad at the world and in love with it at the same time. He loves its ludicrous improbability and hates its petty intolerances. Balogh bills Bunker Mentality as a “tragicomedy” and an “entertaining blend of humor and rage involving a man hanging onto reality by his fingernails.”
While there are resemblances between Balogh and his theatrical alter ego – both are Vietnam vets who have sworn off alcohol, enjoy going to Wahconah Park, and, one suspects, have had a few relationships in the course of their 50+ years – but there the resemblance ends because Balogh is not crazy and Krank most certainly is.
I use crazy here in the nicest possible way. I am personally acquainted with the horrors and stigma attached to genuine mental illness and I mean no disrespect to mentally ill people or their friends and families, but Frank Krank is a fictional character and he’s just plain nuts.
But enjoyably so. Unlike the character of Lee in Sam Shepard’s True West, you never feel threatened by Frank. While he is angry and ponders whether, in his drinking days, he murdered five people or was murdered by five people, even in the very close quarters of the Art on No Gallery, there was no sense of danger. Frank Krank just wants to rant and ranting is good for the soul.
There is dramatic progression in Frank’s character from beginning to end, and a cathartic moment about three-quarters of the way through, right where it belongs. The Frank who exits is more at peace than the Frank who entered, and he has entertained the audience with a few good tales along the way.
It turns out that a stark white corner in a small store-front art gallery makes an ideal residence for frank. There, with a chair, a guitar (there is one song in the show), and a side-table stocked with a phone, a framed photo, a cup of coffee, a pack of camels, and an unidentifiable “family heirloom,” Frank creates his universe, talking sometimes to a caller, sometimes to an unseen hospital employee, and sometimes to no one and everyone.
“When I am alone in this gloomy bunker for too long my racing thoughts churn up suspicions, mirages, and misconceptions that send me spiraling into a violent rage. A lesser man would take that rage our ion the streets and do damage to a man or a dog or a Honda Civic. I never get that far. Pent up anxieties stay hermetically sealed inside of me and cause me to endure an endless war of good guys versus evildoers in my head.”
– Bob Balogh, Bunker Mentality
The lighting also, such as it is, intended for illuminating the art, works. Of course the show was performed in full daylight since the sun graces us with its presence far later at the time of year. But I promised Balogh I would mention the lighting, since he remembered to turn it on at the start of the performance.
Balogh played to a three-quarters full house (about ten people) on the last night of his three-night run in mid-July – carefully timed on days when the BSC Main Stage across the street would be dark. I arrived about half an hour early and found Wild Sage, a good old-fashioned “junk shop” on the corner of Union and North Streets, was still open and had myself an insufficient 15 minute rummage round before walking over to the Gallery, stopping long enough in front of Mary’s Carrot Cake to ascertain that it was closed and I would not be arriving with a treat in hand.
Across Union Street a group of neighbors was sitting out where their stoop would be in their building had a stoop, having a lively summer time talk fest. We had to close the doors to the Gallery to be able to focus on Balogh without catching snippets of their discussion into the bargain.
Inside the Gallery, Balogh was seated in the audience, chatting with his guests. Some women near me were exchanging postcard-sized watercolors they had made. I was given a complimentary chocolate as a consolation for the lack of carrot cake next door. It was nice. And it continued after the show had ended, after I took my leave and headed north towards home.
This, I thought, is community art. All of it. The eclectic collection of 20th century kitsch and second-hand books in Wild Sage, the folks gathering to talk on the sidewalk, Mary’s Carrot Cake, the art in the Art On No Gallery, Balogh’s performance, the relaxed atmosphere in the audience. In recent months the for-profit sector has latched on to artists as their economic saviors. The “Creative Econmy” is going to revitalize downtowns, drawn crowds to restaurants and hotels and shops. Everyone will be prosperous, and therefore happy, once again.
But art, visual or performing, isn’t created for fiscal gain. It is born of the human need to create and our natural desire for beauty. And art isn’t created in a vacuum, or on a schedule. There needs to be a community of artists to talk, to share creations and ideas, to be each other’s audience. There needs to be money, certainly, but there needs to be an open exchange of ideas too. An elitist attitude, that art isn’t discussed on the stoop, doesn’t happen in the storefront, isn’t exchanged in the audience, is wrong.
A few days later, when I attended the press opening of Sleuth at the BSC Main Stage, I looked at Union Street in a whole new way. Across the street the Art on No Gallery AND Mary’s Carrot Cake were open, and the evening discussion group was once again gathered where their stoop should have been. One of their number had been to see Sleuth and they were no doubt waiting to hear his opinion, and add their own.
I was pleased to be invited back to Balogh’s Micro Theatre, and I am pleased to see that he has announced auditions for a new piece, this one, obviously for more than one character. I like the idea of “Micro Theatre” – small space, small cast, brief performances, but not “small plays.” Lord knows, there are enough of them out there running two hours or more!
Bob Balogh's Bunker Mentality was performed July 12-14 at Art on No Gallery, 25 Union Street (across from the Barrington Stage Main Stage) in Pittsfield, MA. The show ran 55 minutes with no intermission and was suitable for ages 13 and up. Call 413-442-2223 for more information about Bob Balogh and his Micro Theatre.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009