Rough-and-ready Reno Unconventional comic to unwrap new show at the Theatre Project

June 24, 1991|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Evening Sun Staff

A RENO watch has been issued for Baltimore. The frenetic New York performance artist who has been described as a cross between Madonna and Pee-wee Herman is expected to whirl into town any time now and touch down at the Theatre Project.

Reno -- real name Karen Renaud, but please don't call her by either -- opens Wednesday night in her latest work-in-progress, appropriately titled "Reno's Brand New Show."

Reno has been classified variously as stand-up comic, monologuist and performance artist. Indeed it's hard to put a label on her high-energy, feisty act that attacks social and political hypocrisy, sexual discrimination and downright stupidity.

Her first show, "Reno in Rage and Rehab," opened off-Broadway in 1989. Later that year, it was filmed as an HBO comedy special that was ultimately nominated for an ACE Award, the cable industry's equivalent to an Emmy.

In "Rage," the curly-haired blonde bounds onto stage in her black roots and black Reeboks and is in constant motion for the next hour, pacing about, spewing a stream-of-consciousness monologue peppered with bodily and facial contortions. Her language can be raw and brutal, but her message is from the heart, and it's funny.

She attacks nouvelle cuisine -- "Two peas and a teardrop; delicious, but you could put it in your eye" -- and the nouveau riche -- "Am I the only one with New Prosperity treads across my forehead?"

She also takes on cops, homophobics, and New York leaders hell-bent on ridding the city of "those criminal knish dealers" who clutter the sidewalks, making it difficult to spot your local crack salesman.

"Reno's Brand New Show" will reveal the same social consciousness, the same offbeat revelations of life's injustices. But its format will be a little different, she said in a telephone interview from Austin, Texas, where she was honing her act before heading to Baltimore.

"This show's structure is more complex," she says. "In 'Rage,' I was just screwing around, and I put a show together, and it just happened to work."

But "in this show, the character goes through change; she changes perspective. I guess you could say the evening symbolizes a period of growth, like pulling back the veil I've been living under. . . and I realize I'm having the same experiences I've had since I was 6," she says, alluding to the autobiographical, and often serious, nature of her writing.

She hopes the audience will see themselves in her, as well as find her funny. "Baltimore has tremendously sophisticated people," she says, noting that some of the material in her new show was developed in a short run at Maryland Art Place earlier this year.

"By the time it gets to Baltimore, it'll still be in pieces," she says. In fact, this work-in-progress won't be finalized until July 24 and 25, when she's scheduled to make two solo evening performances in New York in the Serious Fun Festival at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall.

A big deal, you ask?

"This is a huge deal," she says. For one thing, she was specifically commissioned by the Serious Fun Festival to do a world premiere. "The fact that that level of people are interested in what I'm talking about is very heartening to me."

And for another thing, "they're paying for all this [the show's preparation]," she says, indicating that a decent paycheck is not something she's spent a lot of time with over the years.

Before "Rage and Rehab" made it off-Broadway, she worked on the act a couple years in funky spots on the Lower East Side. And before that, the years were even leaner, like her days in California when was searching for the meaning of life and working as an auto mechanic.

After earning "50 cents a day for about a year" she left that life and moved on.

This fall Reno plans to take the show on the road to such cities as Boston, Seattle and San Francisco, before bringing it home to New York and possibly an off-Broadway run.

"By then it should be terrific," she says, noting that already some Hollywood types have expressed approval.

Has she thought about network television?

Sure, but there's a limit to the concessions she'd make for the censors. "If I have to stop saying "f...," I could do that. But I won't change what I talk about. That's the reason I'm in it."

But her language doesn't seem to bother her audiences, and "what she talks about" draws approval even from the unexpected.

"Women do feel more of a validation with a show like what I'm doing, but then I did a piece on the mammogram, and the men loved it."

"In fact, I'm often astonished at the reaction from men," she says, obviously proud that she can transcend the gender-specific comedy that many new artists fall victim to. "I love it."

"Reno's Brand New Show" runs at Theatre Project, 45 W. : Preston St., Wednesday through Saturday and July 5-7. Call ; 752-8558 for times and ticket information. +

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