Jan and I went to the opening of Tony Fitzpatrick’s one-man show, “This Train,” last night at the 16th Street Theater in Berwyn. Tony’s an old friend—we’ve had various personal and professional interactions dating back more than twenty years—so I knew I could not review the show, obviously. And watching the show, I realized why you really could never do so: everything was so familiar, from his autobiographical details to his manner of story telling to his interactions with his “co-worker” on stage. We loved the show, but we love the guy, and there was no way to discern any critical distance.
That being said, Tony is a natural-born story teller. Most famous as a visual artist, he’s published and performed poems, acted on stage and in movies, and even committed a few acts of journalism here and there. But he’s no MFA-toting persona; he’s a street smart raconteur, a natural in every sense of the word. His style and substance harken back to the likes of Studs Terkel, his hero, as does his Everyman subject matter. In his show, he waxes poetic not only in his poetry, but also in his stories, especially in one that recounts his grandmother and why she “wasted food” on birds. Birds have long been a recurring motif in Tony’s artwork, and for those of us who know that, this story explains the source of his obsession.
‘This Train” features a recorded voiceover of Tony reading his poem, “This Train,” a series of short passages from his artwork, sung by Sally Timms, stories told by Tony to the audience, and “bits” where he sits at his desk and interacts with his assistant. Phone messages are played once in a while for comic relief. (One features the singular voice and signature bizarre ramblings of a certain well-known Chicago artist, one who’s left me similarly vexing messages.) In its entirety, the show manages to combine the charismatic charm of a powerful monologue performer with the gentler rhythms of poetry.
But back to the personal. When you see an autobiographical show, you suspect that’s it an edited version of a persona, the “packaging” of a self into a “brand” that the person wants to convey on stage. And, as such, you wonder how honest it is, or whether you’re just being sold. Tony comes off on stage as an old-school humanist, someone with a generosity of spirit, albeit tempered with less-forgiving disdain for right-wingers and Cubs fans. I can say, from personal experience, that Tony’s generosity is the real thing.