Eliza Jane Schneider always had a fascination with dialects and has an impressive list of vocal credits, including many of the female characters on the TV show "South Park" and some of the fish in Finding Nemo. Starting in 1993, she has toured the country at least 10 times with a microphone, recording the speech patterns, and the stories, of Americans.
The tour was sponsored in part, she says, by a "generous grant from the LAPD." When demonstrating against Gulf War #1, one of LA's finest grabbed her wrist and broke it. The lawsuit helped fund over 300,000 miles in a used ambulance.
"I set out to interview everyone in America," she laughs. "I figured it's take about a month." Many of her most interesting subjects range far from an Interstate. She traveled back roads and asked "what's going on?"
As at the Mustang Ranch, the "biggest little whorehouse in Nevada." The only way she could get past the bouncers and razor wire was apply for a job. She talks to Vanessa, who makes no apologies for her career, nor does the state and the revenue it receives.
Schneider found early on that once people get used to a microphone in front of them, they can really open up.
Like the gleefully apocalyptic Paula. She's driving Schneider to see the "Blessed Virgin's Barn," an image of the Virgin Mary's on a wall. Paula talks about the Last Days as if they were the Senior Prom of Salvation ("the devil's running out of time"). As she does, it's clear why she's been in several auto accidents and had a near-death experience: Jesus came through the blinding light and asked, "so Paula, what do you wanta do?"
Or the young man in the Ole Miss Baptist Student Union. He describes a platonic date that got more and more expensive. It sounds like a shaggy dog story until the end, which flashbulbs conflicting values and intentions.
To her credit, Schneider refuses to judge her subjects. Also to her credit, like Anna Deavere Smith and Hannah Logan's recent Work: in Progress at the Fringe Festival, she recreates her subjects with precision.
Each of us has our own verbal fingerprint: an "ideolect," a one of a kind use of language, grammar, and pronunciation (writers call it their "voice," though few realize it fully). As she moves from one subject to the next, Schneider taps into their ideolects - and physical traits - everyone from a polygamist with 30 children to an irate Vietnam vet.
Schneider has performed versions of the piece before. The current one is shaky at the start: some early voices need more clarity; others establish a voice but don't make a point (Schneider is shaping the piece with Moxie Theatre's gifted director, Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, and one can assume the intro will get worked out).
Along with hearing people you rarely hear in a theater, one of the 90-minute show's strengths is a sense of weaving: a quilt of disparate patches. But what holds them together is the stitching - and how Schneider sews with compassion.