Duo Neurotica

Stephanie Shaw and Andy Bayiates

at the Neo-Futurarium, through August 19

By Justin Hayford

Likability has long been one of Stephanie Shaw’s strong suits. An appealing performer in just about every way imaginable, she’s assured, intelligent, funny, and vulnerable, one of those people who commands attention seemingly without effort then delivers the kind of thoughtfully entertaining material that shows she deserves the attention. Yet in her first two solo pieces–the 1997 Good Eatin’ and 1999 A Proper Dragon, both pieces about pregnancy and motherhood created for the Neo-Futurists’ “Neo Mondo Solo” series–Shaw seemed just a bit too quick with a joke, a little too eager to please. It was as if a desperate, tiny voice inside her were crying, “God, I hope they like me.” This subliminal anxiety gave these smart, provocative, disarmingly personal pieces a slightly unsettled edge.

But with her astonishing new solo work Duct, part of the “Neo Mondo Solo 2000” series, Shaw has come much closer to believing she’s as accomplished and appealing as many of us have thought for years. She’s still quick with a joke, unapologetic in her dalliances with Woody Allen-esque monologues and broad physical comedy (she spends much of this piece trapped inside a huge metal air-conditioning duct). But in sharp contrast to her past work, here she rarely steps outside the story to milk a laugh. She now seems to trust her material–and herself.

This new confidence is evident even before the show starts. As the audience enters, Shaw is onstage setting up her piece, waving to friends as they take their seats. Eventually she draws a quaint housefront in chalk on the back wall, complete with a flower garden, cable television wires, and a bright sun (which she asks a tall audience member to add just above the house). This image of kindergarten romanticism is marred only by an enormous silver air duct jutting out of the wall like the recalcitrant remains of an industrial accident.

Shaw’s preshow lacks all pretense–she’s genuinely got work to do and has no need to hide behind an actorly persona while doing it. At the same time, her tasks have been carefully orchestrated, so that by the time she finishes and sits down with a cup of coffee, her preshow music has just reached its conclusion and the house lights have begun to dim. Seemingly inconsequential, her preshow has a gentle trajectory, drawing the audience into a world of artifice and structure–the tightly scripted hour that follows.

After an initial blackout, Shaw launches into a wild, meditative retelling of Sleeping Beauty, in which a young girl falls into a deep sleep after a splinter of hemp is lodged in her finger. A wandering king happens upon her and is struck by her beauty–or her “availability,” Shaw says with a weary cynicism–and promptly “nails her.” Without a kiss, she remains asleep, giving birth to twins and nursing them while comatose. Only when one of her infants mistakes her finger for a nipple and sucks out the hemp does the princess awake.

In two minutes, Shaw plunges her audience into a ridiculous, menacing, hypnotic world where the fantastic and the pedestrian, the ancient and the contemporary, coexist in a kind of dissonant harmony. The princess–clearly a surrogate for Shaw, whose recent delivery of twins inspired Duct–finds herself scripted into a bizarre narrative where she is immobilized and then redefined by male authority. In some ways, this fable represents a hard-line feminist critique of the repressiveness of motherhood.

For the rest of the evening, Shaw attempts to write herself out of this narrative, yet she can never entirely escape the ridiculous, menacing, hypnotic world of her fable–for it is, in Shaw’s view, the world of motherhood. Once the first fable concludes, after a blackout, Shaw is revealed sitting in a chair inside the metal duct, which she wears like a monstrous hooded sweatshirt. She sits in profile, so that all the audience sees are her muscular, construction-booted legs emerging from a grotesque iron lung, while the opening sequence from Teletubbies plays over the loudspeakers. With a slapstick subtlety worthy of Buster Keaton, Shaw slowly leans back in the chair as though knocked out by boredom. Then her head slowly begins to emerge from its metal confines, revealing that she’s mesmerized and immobilized by the televised assault of gibberish. Her head lists in exhaustion, but her eyes never leave an invisible TV screen. She is every new mother forced to live at the level of a two-year-old for months on end.

Defeated by the Teletubbies, Shaw takes a more radical approach, trying to rescript herself as the heroine in a romance novel. But in keeping with her oblique vision, it takes quite a while before a series of curious, disjointed images of her in an elegant gown fighting incessant flatulence coalesces into a romantic fantasy. She finally reveals that she’s standing waist deep in Lake Michigan while a hunky 20-year-old man seduces her, farts and all.

For the rest of the piece, Shaw is pulled back and forth between being a dutiful mother and a sexy seductress–because God knows in American culture a woman can’t possibly be both. These two worlds continually bleed into each other, and sometimes they collide and send her spinning in an entirely unexpected direction, as when she suddenly finds herself squatting over a filthy toilet in her recently deceased father’s house while his handmade pornographic martini glasses stare lewdly. Operating a kind of hair-trigger reality switch that tosses her across time and space, Shaw keeps her densely written hysteria on the brink of collapse.

Yet she maintains a furious focus throughout her semi-stream-of-consciousness, her flood of images and recollections flowing in tight formation. This dichotomy between wildness and constraint provides the perfect tension for Duct, as Shaw is forever penned in by the very madness of motherhood. Raising a two-year-old daughter and even younger twin boys is complete chaos, but her options are painfully limited: after all, she’s stuck in an air duct for most of the evening. This tension builds to a thrilling climax as Shaw creates a tiny cage for herself with four enormous lamps and charges through an exhausting monologue about trying to serve her rambunctious children breakfast. They throw their food, bite her, shit on her, ask endless questions, and eventually push her into an eruption as brutal as any physical assault. This horrifying moment (which happens, she points out, at 9:30 AM) throws her back to an ancient Celtic ceremony in which she must sacrifice her daughter to a river god–the fantasy man wading in Lake Michigan.

It’s the perfect conclusion to the piece, both structurally and thematically, making Duct’s final 15 minutes seem superfluous, especially since Shaw uses them to draw some rather obvious conclusions. And she speaks of her work with such levity at the end that she almost seems to be apologizing for it, returning to the kind of joke-heavy insecurity that marred her previous pieces.

Yet this is a tour de force display of literary acumen and theatrical chops. Always speaking in a personal voice, Shaw is never simply personal; interweaving her shrewdly constructed fables and fantasies, she places her individual dilemma within a larger cultural and political context. This is no self-indulgent confessional during which we’re meant to pity the poor harried mother. Instead Shaw seems to be asking how any woman in our culture can be a mother and a woman at the same time.

Solo performer Andy Bayiates displays his own brand of low-key likability. With his skinny frame, reserved demeanor, and vulnerable persona, he’s a gentle and warm presence onstage. And it’s this likability that keeps him from drowning in the strange rut he digs himself in SubliMania.

The piece begins as an imitation of an audio course in making a performance piece. Bayiates sits in a chair and listens to a pleasant, depersonalized voice: “You are sitting on a stage and the audience is in front of you. Congratulations. You’ve made your first step toward recovery.” The voice goes on to explain the rules of solo performance. He has to pick an audience member who looks nonthreatening and engage in a faux-candid conversation. He has to take significant objects out of a box so that they can spark personal anecdotes. And, most important, every time a green bulb lights up he must tell an intimate, relevant story.

It seems at first that Bayiates wants to critique confessional pieces–performance as therapy–but after about 15 minutes of this metatheatrical exercise he settles into performance as therapy, telling the story of his addict brother’s demise. Bayiates is haunted by three things: his brother’s death, his inability to prevent that death, and his inability to feel anything in its aftermath. As the piece progresses, he increasingly ignores his initial framing device, putting himself on a therapist’s couch. Occasionally he ends a section by repeating a concluding thought several times, as though trying to get the delivery right, bringing SubliMania momentarily back to its proposed critique. But these attempts seem disingenuous: the piece would have nearly the same impact if he got rid of the metatheatricality altogether.

Bayiates needs to simply tell his personal stories rather than hide behind a pointless critical facade. As it stands, he seems so uneasy with his own confessional impulse that his stories are half-formed. Despite hearing about his brother for a good half hour, we never really meet him and get no clear sense of his character. In marked contrast, we get to know Shaw’s children through a few well-placed details. And while she uses her trauma to illuminate something larger about the culture, Bayiates doesn’t move much beyond self-pity.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Selena Bette-Buck.