A Homeless Ex-Con Shares Life Lessons in “I of the Storm”;Passage Theatre Presents Richard Hoehler’s One-Man Show
“I OF THE STORM”: Performances are underway for “I of the Storm.” Directed by Janice L. Goldberg, the play runs through March 18 at Passage Theatre. A homeless ex-convict, who used to be the vice president of a brokerage, shares his life story. (Photo by Michael Abrams)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
Passage Theatre is presenting I of the Storm. With this production the company is continuing its series of monologues, Solo Flights. Writer and performer Richard Hoehler’s one-man show previously was presented in 2015, at the Playroom Theater, an off-Broadway venue. Subsequent performances have taken place at the Gym at Judson and the Cape May Stage.
Part monologue, and part poetry reading, I of the Storm centers on a homeless ex-convict’s reminiscences about his life experiences, and the lessons he has extracted from those experiences. The audience fills the role of passers-by in whom he confides. The show depicts an attempt to find inner peace while processing the incessant noise of an outside world that is violently chaotic.
Authorship of I of the Storm is credited to RJ Bartholomew. However, that is a pseudonym adopted by Hoehler. RJ Bartholomew also is the name of a newscaster imagined by the solo character, himself named RJ. For a sequence in which he argues with himself, his opposing points of view are named “R” and “J.”
“Regardless of if a person is homeless or has a home … there’s a basic human condition there that we can all share, regardless of what our challenges may be,” Hoehler tells Street Sense Media. “And that’s what I try to focus on so that people can identify with it regardless of their station in life.”
The only props consist of two crates, a water bottle, a journal containing handwritten poetry, and a few other items belonging to RJ. He reveals that he once was “VP of a brokerage and now I’m broke,” and that he served time in prison for “money crimes.”
Now homeless, RJ lives in a park. He admits that in the past “the only reason I walked through the park in the first place was because I missed the bus or couldn’t get a cab.” Now, he doesn’t “walk through the park anymore. I walk in the park.” He proceeds to confide to the audience his experiences and observations: “When I finally let go of my life situation, I found my life.”
He reveals that “I used to sing and dance and write poems all the time when I was a kid.” As an adult he went into business with his family, where he was “pretty good at selling stuff I’d never buy.” Eventually he “signed off on a paper I never even read and got locked up and wiped clean.” His imprisonment cost him everything, including his family. He quips that the one good thing about his time in prison is that he resumed his creative writing, which he could share with a “captive audience.”
Many of RJ’s reminisces focus on a recently deceased woman, nicknamed Mars, who befriended him after his release from prison. He credits their friendship with the equanimity — such as it is — with which he is able to accept his current situation. “She told me I didn’t get arrested, I got rescued,” he remembers. She encouraged him to continue his writing: “a creator’s gotta create even if nobody’s listening or everyone shouts you down … you gotta be the I of the storm.”
He recounts the experiences they shared, including an amusingly disastrous attempt to land a job as extras in a science fiction film. Hoehler is masterful in using his voice—and a variety of accents — to make both RJ and Mars into vivid, distinctive characters.
When not discussing his past, RJ sardonically criticizes several aspects of contemporary culture, including labels (“used cars are ‘pre-owned vehicles’”), television (news, lotteries, and game shows), technology, and social media (“click that link, post that wall/don’t stop to think, reply to all.”)
Song quotations are an integral component of the monologue. Hoehler echoes the Stephen Sondheim musicals Follies and Assassins in using cheerful show tunes of the past to skewer unrealistic expectations that people extract from the entertainment they consume. “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” and “Do Re Mi” are quoted, as well as the edgier “Another Hundred People” from Sondheim’s musical Company. Stand-alone songs also are excerpted, such as “Where Everybody Knows Your Name,” the theme song from Cheers.
Queen’s “We Will Rock You” also is quoted and adapted. Hoehler uses the crates percussively, banging them on the stage to accent the last two words of each line (“rock you/mock you/block you”). He is attacking the stage, in the manner that he observes contemporary culture lacerating peoples’ spirits.
Some passages of spoken dialogue evoke certain songs, even if the actual lyrics are not quoted. At one point RJ argues with himself (or “the voices that taunt”) in a sequence whose staging recalls the “Confrontation” between the title characters in the musical Jekyll & Hyde. Other lines echo “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (“World Trade/Entebbe raid/Iraq blockade”).
Hoehler is a writer, actor, and director who has received the OOBR Award for Best Solo Performance. He is the creator of Me Myself and I, a residency where writers and actors create and present their own monologues. Me Myself and I currently is in residency at Otisville State Prison, where Hoehler teaches an acting course, “Acting Out.” In addition to his theater work, he has appeared in television series such as Law and Order and One Life to Live.
Because RJ alternates between agitation and equanimity, Hoehler’s performance is by turns noisy and quiet, showy and unassuming. This is reflected in Hoehler’s use of body language. At times he raises his arms in a flamboyant use of gestures; elsewhere he covers his chest with them, his objective being to cling to the few possessions he has left—most of them spiritual.
Taking cues from the script, director Janice L. Goldberg provides staging that continues this study in contrasts, maintaining visual interest throughout the show. She lets Hoehler alternate between pacing the length of the stage, and pensively sitting on a crate. In one sequence RJ lies flat; in another he stands on a crate, to tower over the audience.
Goldberg has had a previous collaboration with Passage Theatre. She directed another Solo Flights production: former Passage artistic director June Ballinger’s Once In…Never Out!
Hoehler’s script likely would be equally powerful if delivered without any scenery or sound effects. However, these elements enhance the show. Craig Lenti’s sound design, with its church bells and gunfire, is effective in illustrating both the setting and the character’s state of mind. The same is true of the lighting by Michael Abrams, which at times is intentionally distracting.
The costume by David Withrow consists of a worn dark brown suit, complete with vest and sport coat. This is put to thematic use; as the show progresses, the character removes the coat and vest. As he removes garments, he bares his soul.
Mark Symczak’s scenery consists of a triptych. Three panels convey a storm-filled sky. The panels resemble paintings—and large video screens. This, too, is representative of the script’s themes, as both art and technology are discussed. (One of RJ’s adventures with Mars entailed a visit to a gallery.)
I of the Storm is by turns upsetting, poignant, and cathartic. In both his writing and performance, Hoehler is presenting a character in incessant conflict—with himself, and with scars he has accumulated from living in the 2010s. It is bracing to see him process the noise of the world, and to watch as he attempts to let his voice be heard amidst that noise. This poetic monologue offers a tour de force performance of an inventive, topical script.