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Theater Review:

"INCOGNITO" at Bailiwick Arts Center

BY LUCIA MAURO

Michael Fosberg shares such a life-altering and life-affirming personal discovery in his one-man show, "Incognito," that audiences will leave with a sense of indescribable grief over the repercussions of hidden identity, as well as a renewed faith in tolerance and understanding. But Fosberg, who wrote and performs in this weighty journey-themed work at the Bailiwick Arts Center, veers off on too many lengthy detours as he recounts his search – which began at the age of 34 -- for his biological father.

Over the course of two hours, he delivers a chapter-by-chapter account of his quest sparked by a string of failed romances and the fact that his mother and stepfather are getting divorced. But his writing, especially during the first act, tends to be overly expository and cluttered with extraneous details – falling precariously into the realm of a reading rather than a dramatized reflection on quite an epic story of lives torn apart by fear and prejudice.

"Incognito," whose plot alone is worth experiencing, has the capacity to be a more pungent and insightful piece if Fosberg shaves his words down to their powerful essence and reworks many of the cliched descriptions – particularly the "manicured lawns" of Hollywood or his "walk-in refrigerator" Santa Monica apartment or hackneyed phrases like "gazing out the window." Even vague mentions of ditzy girlfriends and getting high fall into more of a trendy than truthful realm of storytelling.

Moreover, Fosberg should scrap the incidental information, like asking a very stereotypical librarian where he could find the national telephone directories. What matters is that one of those directories holds the key to his mysterious past – not the mundane way he found the phone book. The arc of the story tends to be unbalanced – too much detail for insignificant moments and not enough for pivotal ones. In fact, Fosberg embarks on his journey with his shapely English girlfriend (referred to only as "the Brit") and her young son. She actually inspired him to take the initiative. But, apart from being something of an annoying presence as she videotapes his family reunion, the Brit never becomes a fully developed character.

Audiences will get the most out of "Incognito" by eliminating in their minds Fosberg’s unnecessarily long-winded ponderings while filling in the blanks of emotional areas less explored – with an awareness that his ultimate discovery presents an unimaginably multilayered and ultimately glorious conundrum.

It’s difficult to discuss the show without revealing Fosberg’s central discovery. But suffice it to say that he learns he is not entirely the Caucasian man who was raised in a white middle-class household in Waukegan. His story is beautiful and bittersweet as he tries to come to terms with a long-buried secret.

I was struck by Fosberg’s painful sense of loss over the heritage he never knew and, despite acceptance by his biological father and newfound kin, over the culture he could never fully participate in. I also wanted to know more about his mother, who must have suffered unspeakable anguish over having to relinquish a man she deeply loved.

Director Michael E. Myers, while guiding Fosberg along a conversational and slightly self-deprecating path, could have demanded a greater range of emotion and consistency of tone. Fosberg really comes alive in the second act, where he demonstrates his ability to exude a non-self-conscious honesty.

But, overall, his tumultuous road trip to self-discovery need not be as long and meandering in its dramatized form.•

"Incognito" has been extended through December 23 at the Bailiwick Arts Center, 1229 W. Belmont. Tickets: $20-$25. Call 773-883-1090 or log onto www.bailiwick.org. Michael Fosberg also performs "Incognito" on selected evenings Nov. 11-Dec. 20 at Apple Tree Theatre, 595 Elm Place, Highland Park. Tickets: $22. Call 847-432-4335.

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