Rhubarb Theater Company espouses a mission dedicated to the encouragement of diversity and tolerance, so it is no surprise that its new production, The Nashville Monologues, revolves determinedly around those themes. Artistic director Trish Crist spent months soliciting personal testimonials from fellow Nashvillians, crafted scenes of her own, then interwove all of the material into a revue-like format comprising 32 pieces performed by eight actors representing a variety of ages and backgrounds.
The Nashville Monologues certainly won't tax your attention span. The scenes come at a well-metered pace, most lasting no more than a few minutes. Yet this well-intentioned and communally inspired view of Music City's populace and its dealings with prejudice of varying kinds is almost too light on the theatrical thrust. With so many short scenes—mostly monologues, a few dialogues and one or two of a group nature—coming at us in such rapid succession, our time to reflect is minimal, and the sameness of the staging won't do much for those theatergoers who still prefer an unfolding, textured story.
Granted, a conventional tale isn't what Crist is aiming for. She strives for short, pithy takes, some humorous or ironic, some sad-eyed and pathetic. Within these parameters, there are definite hits and misses, and on balance all of the "logues" are carefully constructed to level a punch that'll connect with the audience at one point or another.
The topics are fairly wide and fully human, and certainly universal to most any American city: insensitive bosses, folks who watch porn in the workplace, single fatherhood, lesbianism, relationships, sexual horror stories, redneck stereotypes and cancer, to name a few.
The format rarely changes, though Act 2 opens with a TV news talking-heads routine, which kicks things off cleverly and seems to signal a livelier direction that doesn't materialize. The word "nigger" makes an appearance more than once, though otherwise the language, while adult, is not scatological. Plus there's a swipe at Dick Cheney's evilness, which telegraphs the play's underlying political sympathies, in case all the verbiage about inclusiveness hasn't yet driven the point home.
The cast is a fairly representative cross-section of Nashville—white, black and Hispanic, male and female—and generally their performances are as sincere as Crist's message that understanding and helping one another is what life is all about.
Not surprisingly, the longer monologues are better able to sink into the viewer's consciousness: Robyn Berg recounts a tawdry sexual experience with life-changing results; Phil Brady portrays an unpleasantly drunk middle-aged guy at a bar; Wesley Paine has a trying experience dealing with a mental-health issue; Shawn Whitsell expounds on what it's like to be a misperceived African-American male. On the lighter side, Mike Baum expresses the plight of straight actors everywhere, who can never seem to score with straight theater chicks, because those gals always seem more interested in gay men who are "theatrical"; and Laurel Baker enacts an oddly affecting little treatise on how being from Pulaski, Tenn.—birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan—doesn't mean you're a bigot.
The ensemble is rounded out by Raemona Little Taylor and Diana Holland.
The performance concludes with a heartily declaimed aphorism, "Nashville belongs to me and you," which somehow reverberates more like a glorified public service announcement than the essential recapitulation of an evening of edgy theater. Ultimately, The Nashville Monologues skews toward the ambivalent impact of a Facebook poke, though you do meet some familiar and likable people along the way.
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