Marcia Wilkie

at Live Bait Theater

Marcia Wilkie has a sincere, guileless quality that pulls you in at once. Perhaps it’s her wide-eyed, sweet “golden age of Greece” face, her soft midwestern twang, or her ability to merge her personality into her various characters. Some people in performance seem larger than life, but Wilkie–a tall, athletic woman with an easy way of moving–can become almost petite. She wraps herself around certain characters and makes you believe that she’s a nun, an anorexic teenage girl, a mother. Then there are times when she’s herself, speaking in her own voice, and you feel her full size and strength. It’s as though she has the ability to grow or shrink at will.

Wilkie began Duck, Duck, Goose, playing at the Live Bait Theater through November 1, with a monologue, “Enough,” that provides a sort of window on the rest of her work. She has an eye for the odd, funny details of life, and allows them to emerge naturally in the telling. In this monologue, mostly in her own voice, she explains what “big enough” means to her using various examples. She describes, among other things, a child’s absorption in a twig, then shifts into the character of the child’s mother and talks about what’s big to her: a polar bear swimming toward them at the zoo. Wilkie says that Georges Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte makes more sense to her reduced to the size of a postcard: she says that size is big enough.

But of course Seurat’s masterpiece at full size reveals its subtleties and eccentric color choices much more forcefully than in any postcard. Nor can reproductions come close to the actual brush strokes, the thinning and thickening of paint, the way thick strokes can actually glisten in certain lights. Does Wilkie really mean to say that a postcard works better for her? Or is this a metaphor for the fact that the memory of something is sometimes more powerful than the thing itself? She needs to make her point clearer.

Her approach to Seurat, condensing something profound to a manageable size, in some ways recalls other flaws in her otherwise seamless material. Problems occur when she tries to make a big issue somehow postcard-size–something cute easily put in one’s pocket, with the subtleties smoothed over or erased.

But by letting the audience see the brush strokes, true colors, and even the application, a performer can invite them in, as Wilkie does in “Theirs Is the Kingdom.” Her nun is moving and real, and strangely costumed in a T-shirt pulled up over her head like a wimple (as a child might play dress-up). The dignity that masks this character’s heartbreak makes us forget her incongruous outfit: sneakers, capri-length leggings, a little red, white, and black patterned rayon dress, and a T-shirt over her head. Why should we believe her? Yet somehow we do, and are brought into her world–precisely because Wilkie has invested this woman with so many realistic touches, from her intonation to her restrained mannerisms to the pursing of her thin lips. Curiously, it’s also that process of transformation–seeing her pull the T-shirt over her head–that brings us in. Here we see the painting full-size and up close.

Though her portrayal of the nun is perfect, Wilkie’s little girl in “Carla One” is problematic. She brings the T-shirt down to form an oversize child’s outfit and some of the things she does–from babbling to dancing and skipping about the stage–seem dead right. Yet I cringed when she let her character stray into cuteness. Children who have important things to say are rarely cute–they’re big souls in little bodies telling truths that are often beyond their own comprehension. And stripping to the bare facts of the story and avoiding an adult perception of how children behave would more clearly reveal that aspect of childhood (I’m thinking of Julie Harris as the 12-year-old tomboy in Member of the Wedding).

Wilkie’s portrayal of the same character as an adolescent in “Carla Two” is riveting. Eerily, amazingly, she’s 14 years old in every detail of her expression and movement. She ends that piece by stepping out of character into her own voice and telling the facts of the newspaper story that underlies this piece.

“Crack Up Laughing,” about a Keds factory worker, and the autobiographical “Duck, Duck, Goose” are strong, beautifully written stories. There’s so much power in this woman that seems at times poised for release, yet an almost Catholic decorum seems to convert her rage and terror, the dark monsters within, to a clever turn of phrase.

One doesn’t assume that the set here is symbolic, as it often is in performance art–not even Wilkie’s costume seems symbolic. What you see is pretty much what you get. On a small screen stage left Wilkie shows two rather innocuous short films, one called “Tricky Jane West,” a little story about a cowgirl who does anything she wants to, and another called “Ten,” in which a hand pulls toys out of a box.

There are no great truths here, no great monsters, no great breakthroughs. But Wilkie takes an earnest, honest, unassuming, almost American approach that works. And the way she switches easily from her own voice to a character’s and back again, the way she weaves story lines and characters together, even across different pieces, makes her work strong. The power of these stories lies in the text and the telling, and the telling reveals much about the small, subtle things in life–which might be big enough.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Debra Steward.