Fairy Godmothers, Psychic Friends and Other Myth Information
at the Storefront Theater, Gallery 37 Center for the Arts, June 29-July 2
Big Goddess Pow Wow 9: "Big Goddess Knocked Up!"
at Metro, July 1
Preaching to the Perverted: A Tour of the Dark Side of Democracy
at Bailiwick Repertory, July 6-9
By Kelly Kleiman
Sometimes when I'm on the StairMaster I imagine I'm performing at the White House. Whatever music is on the Walkman becomes a flawlessly integrated element of my exciting performance piece. When I begin to sing, the assembled dignitaries--a shifting cast of celebrities--are awestruck by my fabulous voice. If it's a Madonna tape, they're awestruck by my dancing too. The content of the piece is never clear, but that's not the point--the point is, everybody's looking at me.
There was a lot of that wishful thinking on display over the Fourth of July weekend during Prop Theatre Group's "New Play 2000" festival. Both Fairy Godmothers, Psychic Friends and Other Myth Information, a one-woman show by Atlanta performer Lori Hamilton, and Big Goddess Pow Wow 9: "Big Goddess Knocked Up!", a feminist performance marathon hosted by Paula Killen, seemed dedicated almost entirely to the proposition "Look at me." Fortunately Holly Hughes's one-woman show Preaching to the Perverted (brought here under the auspices of Bailiwick Repertory's Pride 2000 series) offered an antidote to this particular fever.
There were exceptions to the look-at-me rule, most notably the brilliant monologue with which Lisa Buscani opened Big Goddess Pow Wow. In her first-person narration of an abortion-clinic escort's encounter with a protesting nun, Buscani sweeps the audience into a remarkable act of imaginative sympathy with both characters. After the nun tells the escort, "Consider the potential," Buscani does just that, putting aside polemic to describe the tension between potential on the one hand and option on the other. She ultimately chooses option because "women's lives are nothing but potential." Buscani's work shows us not herself but a new version of the world. So does the mysterious and beautiful Pow Wow piece by Jenny Magnus, cofounder of the Curious Theatre Branch: as she throws herself recklessly around, and especially down on, the stage, she makes us feel her interaction with others she describes as fallen angels, with "that spot on their back where wings used to be." Even the solipsistic Fairy Godmothers--a slice of Hamilton's life, at the end of which she writes the very piece we're watching--contains one powerful moment. When Hamilton gives herself over to portraying her immigrant grandmother grappling with Moby-Dick--"The professor say Ahab is man and the whale-fish is God"--she's thought provoking and touching. When Hamilton abandons the usual demands to look at her, she makes us sit up and take notice.
It's hard for women to exercise their authority--both to have their say and to command attention and respect in a world where commanding women are disdained as overbearing. So I understand the notion, expressed in so many words at Big Goddess Pow Wow, that just doing it--writing, performing, commanding attention--is courageous in itself. "Support women who make things," Killen implored the audience. But what things? They ought to be things that are good, things with content. Once we've claimed our right to be heard, we ought to make sure we've got something to say.
What Fairy Godmothers has to say is "It's hard to have to work for a living when I know I'm a genius and everyone should be looking at me." The piece founded on this insight features recycled jokes ("My mother was a Jehovah's Witness and my father was an agnostic--we used to ring doorbells and just stand there") and misguided displays of "skill." Hamilton has a pleasant shower voice, but it's overtaxed in an a cappella version of "Our Love Is Here to Stay." She has fine taste in music (the preshow featured a song with the marvelous lyric "I need love, not some sentimental prison"), but her performance made it seem like a StairMaster sound track. A series of background slides invited us to compare the character's trials to the labors of Hercules--which had the unfortunate effect of calling attention to the show's length. Oh, no, I thought at one point, we're only up to number nine?
Performance is the sparest art form--theater stripped of everything but ideas. If it doesn't have intellectual content, it's nothing. Hamilton seemed to be short not only on ideas but on discrimination. It would be enriching to spend time on the notion that Ahab is humanity in desperate and ultimately insane pursuit of God; it's worthless to spend time on "I feel fat."
Big Goddess Pow Wow was even more problematic because there were fewer ideas divided up among many, often well-known participants. In addition to Killen, Buscani, and Magnus, the lineup included Reno, of Saturday Night Live and HBO fame; Brigid Murphy, of the long-running hit Milly's Orchid Show; Donna Blue Lachman, founder of Blue Rider Theatre; and half a dozen others. Killen is hugely pregnant (hence "Goddess Knocked Up") and seems to have had in mind a series of commentaries on pregnancy and birth. She began the evening leading a mini parade of pregnant women in swimsuits who posed like Miss America while Killen smoked a cigarette and swigged a beer. But the satire on society's reaction to pregnant bodies, or the role it assigns pregnant women, went no further than that.
There were sporadic attempts to return to the pregnancy theme. Murphy contributed a rendition of the country-western song "One's on the Way" ("But here in Topeka, the baby's a-squallin' / One is walkin' and the other is a-crawlin' / One's on the way"), while Lachman offered an embarrassingly colonialist account of seeking an herbal abortion in Haiti. There were many more not on point: a piece featuring silly imitations of Edith Piaf and of Madeline Kahn imitating Marlene Dietrich, another about Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart trapped together on a desert island, and a third about being attacked by animals in a national park.
Reno had the thankless task of concluding an evening that had already gone on for more than three hours. She did a respectable set--35 minutes of perfectly adequate stand-up--but dyke jokes don't make her work feminist, and there's nothing cutting edge about describing a city girl's reaction to the peace and quiet of the country. Allan Sherman rang the changes on that theme in 1965.
The piece that best represented the look-at-me aesthetic was Cin Salach's song-soliloquy about her discovery that all her friends share her belief that they're secretly Jesus. Parts of this piece were funny, but it highlighted a problem it seems the artist would have been at pains to conceal: since she's not Jesus, her casual meditations have to prove their claim on our attention, a claim for which she offered skimpy evidence. Salach's piece echoed a throwaway line in Fairy Godmothers, when Hamilton says, "From [the TV show] Emergency I learned that, if you're in pain, people will be intensely interested in you." But in the real world your pain is unlikely to be interesting unless you give the Sermon on the Mount--or at least tell a good story.
Killen praised the audience for its attendance, explaining, "You are the other character." Insofar as Metro is always a veritable petri dish of look-at-me behaviors, this is true; but she probably meant that without an audience the work wouldn't exist.
No doubt. But then neither party is doing the other any favors.
Holly Hughes, by contrast, reminds us that performance art can be considered dangerous--and proceeds to show us why. In the regrettably brief run of Preaching to the Perverted: A Tour of the Dark Side of Democracy (only four performances) Hughes describes her experience as one of four performance artists who sued the NEA after they lost funding because their work was not "decent." Though the quartet won in lower courts, the Clinton administration--apparently determined to demonstrate its own decency in sexual matters--appealed the case to the Supreme Court.
Preaching to the Perverted is Hughes's account of her experience defending, and losing, the appeal. It's also a take on the experience of sudden fame (or, more accurately, notoriety); a reflection on symbolic color combinations, the rainbow as well as red, white, and blue; a critique of herd journalism ("We got to be known as 'Karen Finley and the three homosexuals'"); and a comic account of the legal system in the tradition of Lenny Bruce's nightclub act about his obscenity trial, not to mention Dickens's Bleak House. Most of all, it's the complaint of a citizen about laws that make her feel small and rituals that exclude her, until she takes for her own the motto of an African-American mother who instructed her child not to pledge allegiance: "That's not our flag."
Hughes tells her tale on a set consisting of doors that lead nowhere and using props produced from cardboard boxes marked with dates that will live in infamy in the annals of artistic freedom: the day a Cincinnati museum director was jailed for displaying Mapplethorpe, the day massive crowds protested Dread Scott Tyler's What Is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag? The only thing she can't find in her prop box is "the gay agenda." "Don't tell anyone," she begs the audience. "I had the gay agenda, but I lost it."
Perhaps most powerful is Hughes's observation that there's actually plenty of publicly funded discourse about gays--"It's just presented by Jesse Helms and Trent Lott." Even those skeptical of public funding for the arts may feel compelled to acknowledge that, in asking for subsidy, subversive artists are truly only asking for equal treatment.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Fairy Godmothers, Psychic Friends and Other Myth Information photo by Catherine Cuelar; Big Goddess Pow Wow 9: "Big Goddess Knocked Up!" uncredited photo; Preaching to the Perverted: a Tour of the Dark Side of Democracy uncredited photo.