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Does She or Doesn't She?

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Any Way You Want It

Fillet of Solo Festival

Live Bait Theater, through August 30

Most solo performers fall into one of two categories: those who take themselves too seriously and those who don't take themselves seriously enough. Kristin Garrison seems to belong in the second camp--she performs her evening of short, related scenes with a disarming lightheartedness. But this is not to say that Any Way You Want It, part of Live Bait's Fillet of Solo Festival, is in any way frivolous. Far from it. Performing in front of a small rock band, Garrison packs a surprising number of ideas into a performance less than 90 minutes long: fear of intimacy, fear of death, loss of faith, identity crises, even a hilarious send-up of postmodern criticism in which she deconstructs Britney Spears's public persona.

Whenever Garrison is discussing something weighty, however, such as the connection between body image and self-esteem or some terrifying aspect of contemporary life like the Department of Homeland Security's anxiety-producing attempts to make us feel safe, she leavens her observations with comedy. This gift for humor keeps the audience alert and attentive even when the subject is dark: playing a self-doubting minister at a funeral, Garrison blurts out, "Does it really make you feel better to think that he's with God when he's not with you?"

Garrison's rhetorical style will be familiar to regular readers of the Onion and viewers of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, exploiting a kind of comedy that simultaneously makes bad news seem less dire--or at least more absurd--and opens us up to reality. Not just scoring quick topical laughs, she uses humor to express a coherent but thoroughly ambivalent worldview. For every opinion in this show there's an equal and opposite opinion, often within the same sentence or, at the least, the same paragraph. As the jargon-besotted professor delivering a paper on Britney Spears, first published in the "Journal of Forensic Feminism," Garrison both pokes fun at postmodern thinkers and expresses ideas that wouldn't be out of place in an academic setting. Similarly, the paper itself is a sort of fan letter from a passionate wannabe disguised as a sober critical study of the mixed virgin/slut messages that Spears puts across. (Garrison performed a version of Any Way You Want It just two weeks ago at an academic conference at New York University, "Identities on Trial," sponsored by the Women and Theatre Program.)

Ambivalence lurks in every corner of this piece, in all the myriad characters Garrison plays--a professional actor who loves and hates going onstage, the minister who no longer has faith, a former Penthouse Pet of the Month who shows her hatred of her body by keeping it "perfect." Ambivalence informs Garrison's choice of outside texts, which include speeches from two of Shakespeare's more indecisive characters, Hamlet and Othello--who showed the depth of his love for Desdemona by killing her. The show's title suggests vacillation. Even the way Garrison begins Any Way You Want It--she launches into her first monologue while the band, the Tom Ridge Trio, is still setting up--hints that she both wants and doesn't want to start her show.

An ungenerous way of looking at this would be to say that Garrison's technique allows her to have her cake and eat it too. But I think it's closer to the truth to say that, by giving herself over to uncertainty, she's revealing something real and terrifying about the world: that, as Heraclitus put it, the world is flux--everything changes, everything is contingent. You can never have your cake or eat it.

Or to put the same idea in the terms of Garrison's doubt-filled minister trying to comfort a crowd of mourners: "He's dead and you're alive --at least for now." Just as there's ambivalence behind Garrison's comedy, there's real sorrow behind the ambivalence. Clowning allows her to blindside us again and again, making us laugh one minute, then taking our breath away the next with haunting quips like "Are you living in the moment?...God damn it, I missed another moment." These hit like punch lines but linger in the mind like Zen koans.

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