We all suffer, some more than others, some horribly. But we all suffer. And though drama is almost always about suffering, it seldom reminds us to consider the man on the street, the woman next to us in the theater, much less what we may do to help each other. A moment of epiphany in Don Becker's one-man show Back on a Limb at the Avenue Theatre comes when, after reciting a litany of his own agonies (including the loss of one of his own limbs in an accident), he recounts his wakening to us, the audience, the world, the "other." It is a hard-won victory for him, as it would be for any of us.
The autobiographical Back on a Limb is a riveting, difficult, transcendent night in the theater. It has moments of profound poetic insight, moments of unbridled self-indulgence and moments of bleak darkness. But it is always surprising, inventive, complex, edgy and rich in meaning. It is the life story of an artist who has had to deal firsthand with "madness" (a term Becker prefers to "mental illness"), and whose personal trek through mortal experience has led him directly to God. And despite the occasional Kierkegaardian torments and fiery tortures of madness and fear, the God he discovers is the one the apostle John describes in the New Testament--a God of perfect love that destroys fear.
Becker comes out on stage and lights a candle, which remains lit throughout the evening, before beginning a series of monologues covering his life since early childhood. He talks directly to us, and the forty-year history he covers is interspersed with music--the terrific rhythm and blues of Kchera Phillips and the "postmodern ballads" of Bill Ryan (different musical acts will perform on an alternating basis throughout the run of the show under the name "The New Lithium Choir"). Sometimes he speaks in something like stream-of-consciousness, offering us the very image of hellish paranoia. Sometimes his monologue is clear and rational, hilarious and incisive. He lambastes television, and everything he says about it is true and terrible. He takes on sex, and everything he says about that is just as true and terrible, too, though limited in scope.
Becker's self-analysis is often painfully honest. At one point, for example, he admits that he is attracted to madness and the extremes of emotion that come with it. But due to the confessional nature of the piece, he is also capable of repeating again and again, "And I am guilty before the Lord."
Guilty of sin, that is--though I don't remember his using the expression. This is very odd in the intellectual climate of our times--strange to our ears, and, more than that, utterly unnerving. It declares a state of freedom few of us want to accept, a responsibility for our own actions that our recent culture of victimization has mobilized against. Becker is absolutely a subversive.
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But the subversiveness of his work as an artist is Dostoevskian--he accepts responsibility, but is alive to the greatest human need: the thirst for compassion and love. He subverts the cruel stupidity of determinism, the cold brutality of materialism. No "born-again" Christian (one of Becker's first utterances on stage is "the religious right is wrong") would tell you that his search will take him far beyond the mean-spirited intolerance so many disillusioned citizens imagine when they hear the word "Christian." The process of self-discovery he goes through, the dark night of the soul that ends at daybreak, is brave, extravagant, painful, dark--and ultimately loving.
And in the end, it is the troubling intensity of Becker's search for love that makes Back on a Limb something more than a personal journey. Despite an irritating false note when Becker presumptuously informs us we will leave the theater under the illusion that we understand him, he does touch the collective ache. The search for love is, finally, the search for meaning.
Back on a Limb, beginning March 27 and running indefinitely at the Avenue Theatre, 2119 E. 17th Ave. 321-5925.