Nancy Andrews at the Athenaeum Theatre,
through May 30
By Justin Hayford
She has an uncanny knack for cataloging, learned the Dewey decimal system before she could read, and loves homemade periwinkle stew. She is Hedwig Page, seaside librarian, title character in Nancy Andrews’s new performance piece–and one of the least charismatic figures in the history of performance.
Entering in the dark, Hedwig schlepps over to an austere brown lectern, dragging a microphone cord behind her. She sports pink stretch pants, rectangular glasses, and a white turtleneck stenciled with a cryptic downward-curving symbol. Her hair is done up in a bun so bizarre it seems to have been designed by Dr. Seuss. You’d sooner expect smiles on Mount Rushmore than on her face. Stepping up to the microphone to begin the evening, she drops her script, leans over to pick it up, and tugs at her underwear. “I realize you’d much rather be listening to some exciting entertainment,” she drones.
Nothing about Hedwig is exciting or entertaining. She delivers a brief lecture about that rare bird, the library opener–which, as its name suggests, is often found flitting about waiting for libraries to open. She shows a film of people waiting outside a library and recites a poem: “Imagining the books inside. / The excitement is building outside the building. / Here comes the librarian. / She’s going to let us in.” She shows us how to make periwinkle stew; you just boil the little creatures with “a handful of salt.” The real fun, she suggests, is “removing the delicious morsel with a pin.”
It seems Hedwig has been undynamic since her early days. Her childhood poetry merely chronicled her height and weight. She lined the perimeter of her bedroom with all 36 of her worldly possessions and devised a classification system for them. Then she moved on to the kitchen. “Today I have arranged Mother’s pantry,” she wrote in her journal. “To find a can of green beans is no trouble.” The greatest day of her youth was the day she brought Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary.
Hedwig Page, Seaside Librarian is the culmination of a trilogy Andrews began in 1995 with An Epic: Falling Between the Cracks. Its protagonist was Frances Coco, an underwater and outer space explorer who lived in a shoe box. The star of Andrews’s next piece, the 1996 Woods Marm, was Hermione Pine, an amateur entomologist who lived in the trunk of a tree. Andrews always plays her own heroines, although the characters also show up as animated figures on film and as handheld puppets onstage. Her protagonists all live in tiny worlds mostly of their own invention. Most important, Frances, Hermione, and Hedwig are all at odds with the gestalt of late-20th-century America. While the rest of us look for time-shares in McLuhan’s global village, taking dominion over the planet through supersonic transport, international markets, and computer networks, Andrews’s characters long for tiny but ever-expanding worlds in which mysteries never end. These typically minute mysteries can be found in a handful of snow, an unusual insect, or an obscure passage in the Oxford English Dictionary.
In other words, Andrews’s journeys are essentially internal, giving her pieces a kind of mythic undercurrent. Hedwig follows a path that seems to have come right from a fairy tale: she leaves society to take up residence in a seaside cabin (the impulse behind her journey, however, is anything but mythic: she’s ticked that she was passed over for the Miss Public Employee award). The life of a recluse seems to suit Hedwig just fine, for it gives her all the time she wants to sift through and catalog tiny, neglected worlds. As she writes in one of her “observational poems” (number 1598, to be exact), “Look under rocks. / Wade out and look, especially at low tide…/ Don’t overlook the slimy algae.”
It’s a strategy she shares with her creator. Andrews has little interest in grand narrative or epic theatricality–she just plunks herself center stage, flanked by accompanist Steve Clark and narrator Frank Melcori, and carries on as the terminally unmagnetic Hedwig Page, stopping now and again to show a film clip or share a recipe. It’s an evening of tiny, uneventful moments, absurd and poignant, as awkward and clunky as they are poetic.
Watching the piece is like flipping through Hedwig’s personal photo album. Andrews creates snapshots rather than scenes, as her images rarely transform or evolve. In the first half of the evening this approach creates a giddy disorientation, as the piece takes sudden leaps in time and logic. But gradually the pace gets more and more sluggish, and the snapshots–which once overlapped and seemed interwoven–become isolated by pockets of dead space. Andrews’s simple fairy-tale images do not stand up to sustained contemplation. The piece works best as an accumulation of glimpses that hint at Hedwig’s curious universe. If we stare too long, her universe loses its mystery and intrigue.
On a fundamental level, Andrews’s snapshot approach in Hedwig Page, Seaside Librarian is at odds with the fairy-tale narrative. For the first 40 minutes or so, the piece focuses on Hedwig’s hyperorganized life, which is destroyed when she fails to receive the Miss Public Employee award (she’s so distraught she hides in the stacks for hours with a fake call slip in her hand). But rather than illuminate the effects of this event on Hedwig’s life, Andrews presents the character’s reclusive days in piecemeal fashion: Hedwig collects shells, experiments with electromagnetism, watches sailboats, and invents something called the “librarian uplifter.” The conventions of the fairy tale demand consequence and resolution, but Hedwig merely fades away.
As always, Andrews leads us on an enchanting journey, her sly acting drawing us into a delightful world of the purely mundane as she lingers over peculiar fantasies, wandering as far from the straight and narrow as possible. But she needs to fine-tune the navigation of her material. Her challenge now is to keep even the most circuitous trip on track.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.