Big Goddess Pow Wow III: the Empress Provoked | Performing Arts Sidebar | Chicago Reader

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Big Goddess Pow Wow III: the Empress Provoked


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at Metro, May 1

Performance art is the perfect medium for outsiders--the place, as Iris Moore once said, for expression that doesn't fit any other category. And while the word "outsider" may conjure up images of gay boys and drag queens, the disturbed and the genius, it can also be much more mundane, and much more frightening: women, in spite of our place at the table, are still outsiders. The paradox is that, while our place may be reserved (in fact, we probably cooked the meal), it's still someone else's table.

So welcome to Big Goddess Pow Wow III, our town's third annual showcase for, by, and about female (and by implication, feminist) performance artists. Here the women do not sit quietly at the table or show much respect for manners. Here they chew with their mouths open. The celebration is not so much of women as beautiful but as essential; the connection isn't just spiritual or sisterly, it's pragmatic and sure.

These are women with something to say, something disturbing, something that might not quite fit into a traditional play or cabaret act. These are the women who have to talk while standing next to their sculpture, to read their writings with a wry twist so we understand the layers of meaning. We all have to be in the same room for this one, face to face; this won't fit anywhere else.

It's actually a bit misleading to bill this show as the best of the local female performance scene--these are probably some of the most exciting performers in the city right now. And this show's lineup by no means included the entire crop of creative women in local performance. Produced by multidisciplinary artist Paula Killen and performance poet Lisa Buscani, this year's Big Goddess Pow Wow celebrated womanhood by rejecting or embracing stereotypes at will; by not whining about men, or women; by not romanticizing men, or women; by not giving a royal damn about men; and by presenting being female as if it were the most natural, most powerful thing in the world.

Where else but here could host Joan Dickinson introduce the second set with a bizarre entrance through the sold-out house, inching along with tiny, femmy steps, a witch's pointy hat on her head, a sexy black cocktail dress on her body, and a long, multibranched tree trunk (with buds) sticking out of her butt? Dickinson--dry, sexy, and weird as hell--was a stroke of genius as emcee.

Where else but here could poet Cin Salach set out an agenda for possession of her own body, not by proclaiming the need for laws or rights but by defining the connections between her heart and hand, mind and body, not as tributaries to a larger system, but as the system?

For this outing, Salach stripped her piece "You Are Here" to a simple reading with musical accompaniment. The only prop was a huge gauze screen on which her projected image danced while the real live Salach performed behind it. Linking the personal and the political, Salach offered what may have been the evening's most polemical performance but also one of its most powerful. As soon as she stepped out from behind the screen--confident, pissed off, and finally without her usual girlish grin--the audience howled and stomped.

Decked out in butch drag, Jenny Magnus offered up a new piece that questioned the dynamics between power and desire, optimism and fatalism. She was eerie, dark, and riveting. "I don't know when or why the tide will eventually and inevitably turn, but it will," she said, leaving us to ponder whether that meant we should expect light or blackness on the shore.

Buscani's reverberant reading featured her usual outrageousness and roller-coaster delivery. Rennie Sparks entertained with an unapologetic, refreshing story about taking drugs and our ever-changing perceptions of reality. But if I had any complaints about this Big Goddess Pow Wow, it was probably with these two acts: Buscani's bombast sometimes seemed an end in itself rather than a means of serving the material. And Sparks could have varied her performance a little more.

If there were any two highlights, they had to be Killen and Marcia Wilkie, who presented work as different as it could be. Intense and passionate, Killen told of a wild time living in Seattle with a hothead waitress and an alcoholic poet. Their house was a magical place that drew people from all over, a place that exuded love and acceptance, an enveloping and constant empathy. And yet it was tragic too: the waitress, whom Killen loved almost instantly in spite of--or perhaps because of--her nastiness, had a beautiful but fatal affair with a married man, and the delicate balance of the house was destroyed when her heart was broken.

Delivered at a breakneck pace, with the kinetic Killen in full command of the stage, the piece features rich, poignant language filled with gentle but sharp observations about everyday life. It's also packed with an unconditional love of friends, especially women friends.

Wilkie was leisurely by comparison. Thoughtful, soft, she demanded a different, more focused attention. "I bought a birthday card for my sister," she said. "She is two years older than me. It said, 'A sister is a friend given by nature.' I looked at it. Did I buy this? What was I thinking?"

Wilkie's piece, bittersweet but not sticky sweet, explored the connections between women, with all the contradictory emotions of love and hate, loyalty and resentment. Listening to Wilkie, who told it all so seriously, was like hearing a friend read aloud from her journal.

Certainly these performers, diverse as they are, diverse as their performances turned out to be, shared certain concerns. Every single piece was, in one way or another, about taking charge, about making decisions and taking responsibility for the outcome. Not a single piece betrayed the slightest self-consciousness. Not a single artist had the patience for self-pity.

That homogeneity extended to other elements as well: everyone who performed was white; everyone ranged in age from their mid-20s to mid-30s; although a number of women on the program are bisexual, nearly everyone who spoke of relationships chose to go the heterosexual route. This isn't a criticism of the producers, just a reminder that there are still many other voices to be heard.

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