Ethelred the Unready

★★★ ½
Through Dec. 10
Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, various venues

There are hundreds of professional actors in the area, but prior to Dana Marks’s Ethelred the Unready, only three have produced an autobiographical one-person show in the last decade. Why? Solo performance is daunting; autobiographical solo work is even harder. In the former, you merely spend an hour onstage, alone, before a live audience. In the latter, you also open some of the most private parts of your life—irrevocably—to public scrutiny. It’s more than enough reason, all told, for anyone to think twice.

But monologists usually find themselves compelled to draw on their lives. In many cases, people or events crucial to them have started to disappear, or some fundamental aspect of their identities has never been visible to begin with, and the anonymity is no longer tolerable. We see both of these drives in Marks’s audacious and, sometimes, reckless work.

Memories of a beloved father who’s compared to a Greek deity and a comic-book grotesque get tangled up in narrative threads detailing the aftermath of personal trauma, a psychoanalysis of Marks’s life as an actor, and biographical snippets from the title character, England’s most hapless monarch.

Marks performs Ethelred first-person, in motley, mutated medieval drag, updating the bad advice the tenth-century regent received with examples she’s apparently taken herself. She punctuates these tales with a diverse, self-accompanied live playlist including Scott Walker, Boz Scaggs, and Kander and Ebb—plus a convincing lounge version of “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.”

Whether it’s written or performed, autobiography attempts to orient the self—to find coherent meanings in a bewildering series of life events, and to define one’s relationships to others in the world. At forty-three, Marks questions whether the traits that make her a good actor have made her a good person. After likening trauma’s long-term effects on the psyche to a scratch on a phonograph record, she demonstrates by obsessively reiterating a negative three-word mantra.

Dark romantic songwriter and novelist Nick Cave is a telling choice as Marks’s autobiographical muse. She quotes from him frequently through the work. “I love, you love, I laugh, you laugh, I move, you move, and one more time with feeling,” she intones, repeatedly, from “Magneto,” as an incantation and declaration of her constant restlessness. “I have to keep moving,” she says. “Stillness is emptiness.”

On opening night, the scattered jumble of rough switchbacks, jump cuts and digressions seemed ad hoc at times, before an ending that sort of petered out. There was also a more than a passing occasional resemblance between Ethelred and Thom Pain (based on nothing), Will Eno’s scathing indictment of solo performance’s excesses, which director Jaybird O’Berski staged in 2006.

But it’s most accurate to say that this prismatic work not only reflects the schisms, contradictions, and facets of eerie beauty its creator has found in her own life; it attempts to embody and place them onstage as well. No one’s ever fully prepared for everything the world is going to throw at them. But Ethelred the Unready reveals an artist arming herself with hard-won insights that let her meaningfully engage with it.