Continuing Recital’s sponsored partnership with the New Hazlett Theater, we are presenting a series of editorially-independent previews and reviews of the 2018–2019 Community Supported Art (CSA) Performance Series. Below is our review of You Can Call Me Al by Ali Hoefnagel, a collaborative response from Recital editor David Bernabo, season review panelists Jason Baldinger and Johanna Lasner. Read their bios at the end of the review. And read our preview of the performance here.
By David Bernabo
With You Can Call Me Al, Ali Hoefnagel presents a vulnerable retelling of their life, centering on the realization of their transgender identity and all the varied ways that that personal detail bounces against a world that is less than accepting. That may sound quite heavy — and it is, along with poignant and tear-inducing and human — but the piece is also filled with humorous quips and ad libs, and is so cleverly told, bouncing back and forth through time, that its 75-minute runtime flies by.
You Can Call Me Al questions whose stories can be told. It is certainly ok to tell your own story, but when your story overlaps with the stories of others, where do you stop? As the piece takes great care to navigate these waters, it seems insensitive to casually gloss over plot points in summary for a critique. So at this point, the review panel wants to mention that certain aspects of the performance are delicate and personal, and we feel that, if you haven’t already, you should try to seek out an upcoming performance to get the full impact of the work. To that end, we won’t be revealing many spoilers in this review.
You Can Call Me Al is a one-person show augmented with live musical interludes by violinist and vocalist Gray Buchanan. The music seems to draw on traditional Irish or Nordic folk music, employing a wonderful array of double stops. Buchanan wrote three musical motifs that are the basis for two sung songs and ambient music in support of the storytelling. The songs, which are performed on a second level at the back of the stage, allow the audience to acknowledge space away from the stage floor. As the songs represent an abstracted compliment to the literal storytelling, this particular use of space further abstracts the world in which the story is housed.
Aside from two songs, one which opens the show and another around the halfway point, Hoefnagel is onstage for about 70 minutes, talking the audience through different points of their life — their birth, coming out, the birth of their child with their partner — and different motifs — the bonds of family, pronoun usage, the purpose of storytelling, the tangles of human behavior. The set, while making a show of being carefully composed of objects with personal weight, is rarely used, and acts as a warm, inviting background that implies familial life. Effectively using gobos and fog, the lighting remains relatively neutral, emphasizing the occasional side light as if a morning sun is casting shadows on the living room set. These extra elements — the music, the set, the lighting — are all tastefully considered and supportive, but rely on Hoefnagel’s delivery and presence to make or break the performance.
Hoefnagel does not disappoint.
There is a wonderful cohabitation of rawness and polish in Hoefnagel’s performance. The sentiments and stories expressed struggle to be released. This is deep stuff, the kinds of stories that people usually bury, unearthing them only for late-night thought spirals. Stories about depression and suicidal thoughts and the guilt that accompanies not wanting to continue a life. Stories about the change in perspective after you help to bring new life into this world. Stories about how the concept of transgender people presents a challenge to those with “traditional” beliefs, and how that challenge often manifests itself in anger, frustration, and, sometimes, understanding.
Countering the rawness of the content is Hoefnagel’s effortless flow, allowing words read from a script in hand to flow like normal conversation. At the top of the show, Hoefnagel immediately breaks the fourth wall. They tell the audience how the show was written, how having a child of their own changed the path of the writing process and, ultimately, what the audience can expect from this show. It’s an effective tactic. If you had read something about the show and were bracing yourself for an emotional journey, you now feel at ease, like you are all on the same team, rooting for Hoefnagel.
When Hoefnagel mentions how heartbreak led to their coming out to their parents at an Olive Garden, you both laugh at the fact that Olive Garden is always a punchline and relate to the emotional nadir that is a broken heart. When Hoefnagel relays that they were a surprise because their twin brother — “another cis dude” splayed out — was blocking view of Hoefnagel on the ultrasound, you know that this is a cute example and loving jab that alludes to a larger societal issue.
Storytelling is the oldest form of communication. In You Can Call Me Al, the story is a way to capture memory. Periodically, audio snippets and pre-recorded readings of letters are piped into the theater. These additions are direct documents of memory and help to humanize and give agency to some of the characters that are talked about but not directly heard from. These are their own words or laughs or sighs. The story also acts as a example of how to navigate a life that isn’t fully accepted by the mainstream. In those ways (and many others), Hoefnagel presents a story that is definitely worth telling.
Jason Baldinger is a poet from Pittsburgh. He’s the author of several books the most recent of which, the chaplet, Fumbles Revelations (Grackle and Crow) is available now, and the collection Fragments of a Rainy Season (Six Gallery Press) which is coming soon. You can hear Jason read his poems at jasonbaldinger.bandcamp.com as well as on a recently released cassette by the band Theremonster.
David Bernabo is a filmmaker, musician, dancer, visual artist, and writer, performing with the bands Host Skull and How Things Are Made; devising dances with his variable dance company, MODULES; and often collaborating with Maree ReMalia | merrygogo. He curates and produces work for the Ongoing Box imprint and co-curates the Lightlab Performance Series with slowdanger.
Johanna Lasner is a curator and artist with formal studies in photography and interior design. Prior to moving to Pittsburgh, she lived in the United Kingdom, Canada and the Caribbean. During her time in Pittsburgh, she has worked with Casey Droege Cultural Productions covering projects such as SIX x ATE, The PGH Photo Fair and CSA PGH, also The Carnegie Museum of Art, and GalleriE Chiz. She recently curated the Ramin Project, by artist Aurora Zanabria, in her native country of Ecuador. Lasner’s passion for community has taken her to participate in sociocultural projects such as Canadian Mill Woods Assembly Medical Mission in Guatemala, Latinas Connect, and Madres Latinas of Pittsburgh.