By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Jan 19, 2012 at 5:32 AM

The proliferation of single-actor plays that has occurred since the early '90s is directly traced to a couple of theater facts of life.

Small casts fit small budgets in challenging economic times.

Actors like to have a portable one-person show in their back pockets to provide employment when the casting directors aren't calling. Hit the road with your own production during dry spells.

Some actors create their own material. Others have plays written for them, or they are cast in a show mounted by a frugal theater company.

As usually happens when choices are driven by necessity, the results widely vary. The quality of one-person stage productions stretches from the the exhilarating to the awful.

I am pleased to report that Renaissance Theaterworks' new one-woman offering, "Neat," falls comfortably onto the positive side of the scale. It is extremely effective at stripping away all extraneous stage elements and reminding us that theater is about simple story telling.

"Neat" is an autobiographical work written in the '90s by actress Charlayne Woodard, whose successful performing career has ranged from being in the original Broadway company of "Ain't Misbehavin'" to recurring roles on the TV series "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" and "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." She has authored four plays and acted in an off-Broadway production of "Neat" 15 years ago.

The story is centered on the actress' aunt, who was accidentally fed a poisonous liquid as an infant, resulting in permanent brain damage. Nicknamed "Neat," she remained childlike through her life.

Woodard interacted with her, first as a small girl who found her aunt to be an enchanting, slightly more advanced playmate, and later as an embarrassed teenager less sanguine about her developmentally disabled relative. The story begins in segregated Georgia during World War II before moving to Woodard's hometown of Albany, N.Y.

An adult Woodard is the show's narrator looking backward in time, and the actor portraying her is constantly shifting among many characters to play the people who populate the piece. As the young Woodard matures, the story becomes more about her coming of age and less about her aunt. That makes it no less compelling.

"Neat" works so well because Woodard the playwright doesn't try to make it a statement or overplay her hand. It's a bittersweet, comic-tragic account of two lives, told without an agenda. Mid-20th century racism and its effects are the foundation of the story, and the calm telling only intensifies the poignance.

Needless to say, "Neat" requires an exceptional actor to credibly slip into and out of multiple roles in a blink of an eye. Renaissance has that in Marti Gobel, who exceeds her previous strong body of work in Milwaukee by demonstrating how well she can continuously engage an audience through two acts.

There are no tricks here to catch our eye or curry our favor. Just as the writing illustrates the power of simplicity, Gobel's acting engrosses us with its clean and uncluttered honesty.

Director Suzan Fete's staging is equally spare. The production is mounted with a platform, a chair and scenic designer Lisa Schlenker's evocative folk art backdrop. Less is definitely more here.

Making Good Decisions

From its inception, the American Players Theatre has done things differently from other regional stage companies. Perhaps that is the reason the Spring Green group has consistently been among the outstanding theater troupes in the country for more than three decades.

The announcement last week that Brenda DeVita will become the APT's artistic director at the end of 2014 is another example of the company's nonconformist personality. She will succeed David Frank in running the creative side of the organization. Frank, whose title is producing artistic director, is responsible for both the business and artistic operations.

Give the APT's board credit for making a terrific decision and having the courage to be unconventional in its approach to replacing Frank, who will retire.

The overwhelming majority of artistic directors of American theater companies are veteran stage directors. DeVita is not.

She was a very good actor before the birth of her two children caused her to step back from performing, but the Iowa native has been almost exclusively an APT administrator since 1995. She will stage "Shakespeare's Will" in the indoor Touchstone Theatre next summer.

It is generally expected that a troupe with the size and prestige of the APT will conduct a national search when seeking a new artistic director. The board did not.

The national search imperative, in my opinion, is often invoked to pump up an arts organization's ego. "Look at us, we are so important, theater artists from around the country, or the world, want to move here to work for us."

If you have the right person for the job already in-house, skip the search and promote from within. Choosing DeVita is a healthy sign that the APT and its board have a strong sense of the company's identity. They know what they are, and they wisely want to continue going down the same path.

DeVita has been the associate artistic director since 2004, and Frank says she has been doing about 90 percent of the top job in recent years. The company weathered the recession remarkably well, and the 2011 season was arguably the artistically strongest in its splendid history.

The APT has its own distinctive culture. Hiring an outsider to assume creative control would run the risk that the new boss wouldn't get it. DeVita is part of it.

Announcing the change of command nearly three years before it happens is certainly unusual. APT director of communications Sara Young explains, "We are big planners out here, we spend a lot of time looking ahead. And we believe in being transparent."

It's transparent to me that all of this bodes well for APT's future.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.