Solo performance is one of the more perilous forms of theater. Done right, it's supposed to be set-less and prop-less. The star has to shoulder multiple roles per scene, telling a story and acting it out at the same time. Only a few people do it well, including Off-Broadway actress and poet Sarah Jones, accent-impersonator and nimble polyglot Danny Hoch, and Obie-winner David Cale, whose new show, Palomino, is currently showing at Aurora Theatre. What separates Cale from the pack isn't just his ability to inhabit several different characters. It's also his talent for structure and mechanics. He's one of those rare actors who can write, direct, stage-manage, and star in his own plays, without seeming like a solipsist.
In that sense, Palomino manages to slough off some of the stigma attached to one-man shows. Running at a taut ninety minutes, it's more a short story than a work of theater. Cale manages to describe scenes in precise terms, as though he's reading stage directions. He's thrifty with words. He easily shifts point of view, telling the story from all sides and letting us relish the "a-ha" moments, even if his characters will never see them.
Cale says in the program notes that the idea for Palomino spawned from his experience playing a carriage driver in a low-budget film. He researched the role by taking a job as a carriage driver in Central Park, which allowed him not only to mingle with a large swath of the Manhattan population, but also to fraternize with the other coachmen. He learned that it's actually a fairly scandalous line of work, full of handsome, working-class blokes who aren't above hustling their passengers. He learned, moreover, that some patrons might pay to ride the coach, and wind up riding the driver.
Intrigued, Cale parlayed that knowledge into a new play about a handsome young Irishman named Kieren McGrath, who takes a job driving carriages, even though he secretly aspires to be a novelist. Kieren is one of those odd, erudite, unattached young men who can easily use his good looks and sexual prowess as a bargaining tool. He wears a fedora, quotes Rilke, and has an accent straight out of Dubliners. He easily catches the eye of Marsha, a middle-aged society matron with capitalist ambitions. She offers Kieren a job as a male escort. Within days, he's gone from shoveling horse shit to attending plays at Carnegie Hall, banging old ladies in their Upper West Side apartment buildings, and raking in $1,500 a night. That's a pretty nice sinecure.
Or not. Cale starts the story as a memoir of sorts, using lines that turn out to be stolen from Kieren's autobiography. But as he adds characters and incorporates new points of view, Palomino turns into a different kind of story — less about sex, more about power. Kieren and his main client, Vallie, may occupy different social stations, but they're both complicit in their own exploitation. Vallie is 48, rich, and a widow. She owns several Chagall paintings and a fabulous collection of Eileen Fisher dresses. Kieren is in his early thirties, young, dashing, quick-witted, and an incorrigible flirt. They have a weird kind of relationship that falls somewhere between a romance and a transaction. Both parties seem to realize that ambiguity.
Already that setup makes for a good story, and Cale doesn't have to work very hard to build tension. He spends the bulk of the play alternating between Kieren and Vallie, and occasionally bringing in the minor characters. The scene called "Marsha" is two minutes of extravagant gesture and wordless monologue — we find out later that Marsha is being observed from across the room at a party. For "Trish" he has to be a hot blonde British girl. For "Edward" he plays a gay British publisher. Cale's pliant, rubber-band body and long, expressive face allow him to quickly morph into character. He modulates his voice only a little, relying more on body movement and mannerisms. To play Kieren, he juts his shoulders out and looks at the audience conspiratorially. To play Vallie he shifts his weight, leans demurely on one foot, or sits down with his hands clasped in his lap.
With Cale's knack for role play, Palomino doesn't require extravagant sets or high production values. Really, the scenic design includes two stools on a dark floor and a video screen in back with images provided by Rich Takes. Most of them are shot from below, showing the dappled treetops at Central Park, or a single cloud slitting through a low-slung, foggy sky. It's as though Kieren shot each picture while sitting astride the palomino, looking up. The clip-clop of horse hooves serves as a framing device. It's also symbolic: The palomino is a rare, beautiful equine breed that, in this play, serves as a workhorse. So is Kieren McGrath.