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Live Theatre Workshop

Play puts one man’s life on the line

Bill Epstein's one-man show closes at LTW on Saturday

If you can, catch “My Life In Sports." The new one-man show, presented by Live Theatre Workshop, is authored and presented by Bill Epstein. The short run opened last weekend and closes with matinee and evening performances on Saturday.

In the play, Epstein looks back at the events of his own life, trying to make sense of it all. This autobiographic genre is always in danger of being overwhelmed as narcissistic and/or overly romanticized, but Epstein, a professor of English at the University of Arizona, avoids those pitfalls.

Instead, we get a frank narrative that doesn’t try to make a Big Statement. Epstein isn’t trying to sell you anything – he seems as mystified as anyone at the mostly routine, non-dramatic twists and turns his life has taken as a college professor raising a family. Which is not to say that drama isn’t there. In middle age, he found the love of his life, only to lose her not long after to a wasting, humiliating cancer. Here he has found a way of dealing with the experience through artistic transmutation. The show, its creation and presentation, clearly represents some aspect of a very personal and profound healing ritual.

One man’s story, plain and simple

“My Life In Sports,” however, is not at all insular. The genuine Everyman aspects of Epstein’s life – as a short, Jewish kid aspiring to athleticism, as a student searching for an intersection between his passions and skills, or as a grown man self-imprisoned in a loveless relationship – aren’t particularly remarkable, and their very plainness allows empathy. The author/actor’s storytelling skill is in heightening the mundane to a level that compels our ongoing interest. His use of sports metaphors constitute a shared language that helps convey his emotions clearly.

Epstein exploits this further by presenting the play’s narrative events in a non-sequential way. This generates a certain existential tension, as we know how things will end, even as they begin. Epstein plays with these shifts skillfully, allowing threads in the story to temporarily float suspended, forcing us to wonder how we will get to where we already know we will end up.

The contrarian tread to this plainness, however, is Candace, literally a ballerina half his age, who upends his life, first in unimaginable joy, and then in unspeakable tragedy.

Avoiding bathos

Epstein the actor, and his director, LTW’s Sabian Trout, discreetly prevent this seismic shift in the story from falling into bathos. The actor cultivates a certain enforced blandness while describing the details of her decline and death which allows the audience to reflect rather than be overwhelmed.

Playwright Harold Pinter is clearly a touchstone – the text explicitly names him twice. The Pinteresque qualities of menace amid the trivial and silence within a torrent of dialogue abound here. (There is little real silence or time for contemplation during the performance.) There is also Epstein’s artistic detachment from his own life, both as an author trying to create a dramatic work from raw material, and as an actor, struggling to reveal truth and not substitute a better character than who Epstein the person actually was.

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“My Life In Sports” is near perfect, any faults due to the inherent limitations of a one-man show, not a lack of skill by the author or actor. Despite being, essentially, a single extended soliloquy brutally faithful to actual events, Epstein more than holds our interest throughout – he engages at a heartfelt level and his tale never feels stagnant nor contrived. It is clear that he neither expects nor wishes for anyone or anything as intense as Candace in his life again. Though in looking back, you sense he still faces a fundamental question: knowing the ecstasy and pain to come, what might he do differently?

Epstein has found a way of dealing with his life-changing experience through transformation, making art out of life. The masterful work that he has created, both as author and performer – engaging, emotional, and very, very real – is a joy to experience.

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Ryan Fagan

UA English professor Bill Epstein and his tour-de-force play, 'My Life In Sports.'

If you go

What: Bill Epstein's “My Life In Sports,” presented by Live Theatre Workshop

When: Saturday at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

Where: Live Theatre Workshop, 5317 E. Speedwy

Tickets: $20 with discounts available for seniors, students and military. Available at the door, by calling 327-4242 and online at livetheatreworkshop.org/tickets/reservations.