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An Uncommon Woman

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SHIRLEY GIRL!

Cheryl Trykv
at Live Bait Theater

Most obvious about Cheryl Trykv's Shirley Girl!, playing late nights at Live Bait Theater, is its hipness. Trykv is cool, clever, and cute. But Shirley Girl! does more than strut: it reveals Trykv as a writer of uncommon talent. And as a performer willing to take the kind of risks that rely more on personal courage than gimmickry or shock. In this entire hour she doesn't hit a single false note.

Performed solo on a nearly bare stage, Shirley Girl! is a series of short monologues, all written by Trykv. Often delivered in the stop-start cadence favored by poets at the Green Mill and other performance-poetry venues, these pieces are not so much stories as moments, big and small, and they retain all the awe and awkwardness of still-developing Polaroids. Trykv has an eye--and an ear and a feel--for these everyday occurrences, and she bathes them in a warm, sympathetic, and sometimes humorous light.

Consider "Whippoorwill," a conversation with a homeless woman that in other hands might have been irritating or patronizing. Trykv manages to portray reality both inside and outside the woman's head--the awful constant buzzing of the woman's mental illness, and her refusal to hear Trykv tell her that she doesn't have the spare change she wants. When these levels of reality brush up against each other there's plenty of absurdity. But Trykv doesn't try to make it funny. She may be a bit impatient with the woman, but she's too aware of her own vulnerabilities--and of ours--to make fun of her. We're all just inches from being in the woman's tattered shoes.

Consider, too, the pathos underpinning "Rat Bastard Pig," an otherwise wickedly funny piece about urban courtship. "Sure, we're both potheads, but there's got to be something more to it than that," Trykv says, wondering what it is that draws her to Steve, a sign painter addicted to sniffing Magic Markers who greets her at the door with ink smeared on his nostrils. When the woman leaves Steve to go to the bathroom, Trykv rides the full roller coaster of emotions: bewilderment at her attraction to this man, annoyance at what seems to be his lack of interest in her, insecurity, fear that he might be in love with someone else, jealousy. By the time she comes out of the bathroom, Trykv has whipped herself into an explosive rage at what she perceives as Steve's betrayal. But by then he's reconsidered her invitation for a date and, without having the slightest clue about her emotional turmoil, casually accepts. Trykv folds immediately. "All right," she says, smiling--and grateful.

Trykv knows that, like so many other tiny humiliations, this one is not a matter of feminine submission. It's just one of those things we all do, driven by the inexplicable chemistry of attraction. But while the rest of us might pretend things like this never happened, she steps right out into the spotlight with it.

In "Paw Paw for Jesus," a staple of her performances, Trykv smart-mouths her way into trouble by causing havoc at a service station and later stealing a van out from under its insipid sexist driver. The story involves recklessness and freedom, but its real appeal and durability may lie in Trykv's impish delivery. Most performance pieces don't hold up well to repeated telling, but this one seems to get more and more fantastic--and more convincing--every time.

In "Up the Butt," Trykv employs a similar sense of the fantastic. Though its concept comes close to sentimental, the piece is saved by Trykv's dash of cynicism. In it she gets even with a jerky boss, but her revenge has nothing to do with harming him. Instead she literally soars--above Los Angeles, above the clouds. Revenge, she says, is release. This is a woman with a radical understanding of the need for escape.

There are genuinely hilarious moments in Shirley Girl! Trykv's comedic timing is nearly unrivaled on the local performance scene. "I wore the same clothes as yesterday, but nobody seems to notice," she says during one piece, then pauses. "Maybe I should leave the house." She's as dry as the Mojave, and nearly as scorching.

Not every piece is so resonant, however. "Tijuana Weekend," another staple, feels shallow by comparison to the others. "Despair in the Gutter" seems unfinished. Still, Shirley Girl! is one of the freshest, most original shows to come along in a long, long time.

TEMPORARY GIRL

Lisa Kotin
at Club Lower Links
April 9-11

Trykv is a bit hallucinatory, Lisa Kotin more sober. In Temporary Girl--a sort of day in the life of a temporary office worker--Kotin practically, if reluctantly, embraces the everyday. She tells us right off that she works as a temp because, as a struggling actor, she doesn't like routines. Then she immediately describes a most enslaving routine.

Where Trykv might fly away, Kotin is grounded. She's tied to her telephone, calling in for messages from the temp service or from an agent. She's tied to her desk, to Back Stage magazine's audition listings, to the whims of every day's new boss. She's also keenly aware of the minutiae of temping--the precious minutes stolen in the bathroom to staple together head shots and resumes for agents, the horrible little items on the desk of the woman she's replacing (many of which will wind up in her oversize bag), the petty dynamics of the "permanent" office girls, who resent and pity her at the same time.

Temporary Girl, which mixes live performance with wonderful film footage and sound, is very funny but very sad. The other side of Working Girl, it shows the paradox of dependence on the rat race and the wish to be free of it. But unlike Trykv, Kotin never really breaks free--not even when she finally gets a show. In it she plays "a secretary type." The horror is that the temporary job, the awful disorientation of being in a new place every day, has become permanent.

More theatrical in some ways than the usual performance art in Chicago, Temporary Girl employs a variety of mechanisms that distance the material from the performer. Kotin, who works out of New York, uses real costumes and a fully stocked set. And although the experience she describes is clearly personal, she takes on a variety of other characters: an older, wizened veteran secretary; a self-absorbed feminist boss; a sneering coworker concerned more with her new diet and new husband than anything else in the world. In Chicago performance, personas often suggest characters; in Kotin's work, characters sometimes suggest personas.

Kotin is a physical marvel throughout. Unlike Trykv, who still shows uncertainty, Kotin knows exactly what to do with her body and face. Every gesture is perfect and sure. Every raised eyebrow, drooped lip, twitch of an eye punctuates the narrative. On the surface it's very entertaining, but the bleakness of it all haunts the viewer long after Kotin has left the stage. Temporary Girl is about loneliness for a living.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.

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