at the Blue Rider Theatre, June 4

Among the women who are angry about gender inequities in our society some rant and rave, and some have skillfully navigated and overcome the pitfalls. Then there are women who are repressed, passive-aggressive–because though they’re angry they won’t fight. Early conditioning and socialization prevents them from even considering it. Their anger smolders as a fire does when not provided sufficient oxygen, but the unexamined life in these women provides fuel to keep the fires smoldering. If they ever actually fought for the things they wanted, they would be on fire. But tradition and mores keep the lid on most of them and the fire consumes them, draining them of energy and keeping them stuck. A generation of women in their 20s and 30s have grown up opposing these feminine models.

Fire in the Ladies’ Lounge! attempts to come to grips with the dilemma of autonomy and self-actualization against the backdrop of an indifferent society. The title promises something more risky, irreverent, and dangerous, however, than these four artists deliver.

The fire in this ladies’ lounge is not so much a fire as a “smolder,” feelings trapped behind the guise of propriety. Taken all together the work seems to allude to such states of mind as depression, paranoia, and sociopathic narcissism without diving deep enough to create identification. One experiences the complication but not the denouement. All the works contain references (some gratuitous) to popular culture. And with the exception of Eija Pick Reed, this work examines the personal, the idiosyncratic.

Katherine Boyd began the evening with her most polished, most clearly articulated piece to date. As we sat in darkness we heard the sound of hammering; then the lights came up and went down on a reclining odalisque with a bull’s-eye on her back (Julie Laffin), up at least half a story on a platform above the stage. The lights then warmed up the stage itself, which evoked the early 1960s: a kidney-shaped marble table, a gold velour couch (probably closer to the late 70s), and Boyd in dark red polyester toreador pants and a “matching” brown and white plaid waitress blouse with puffy sleeves. She lay beneath the cocktail table, her eyes open, as though she were in a sort of stupor. The phone rang, then we heard a taped message about a closed dialysis elimination center, then a beep, then a query (Boyd’s own voice), to which she responded.

The remainder of the piece consisted of a sort of self-interview. The voice described an inventory of objects, some in view, some out: stuffed and mounted animals, a brown purse, a box of pink Kleenex, ten tubes of Ace bandages, a photograph of a girl (Boyd herself), a prosthetic leg. At one point Boyd took the photograph, dipped a Kleenex into bleach, rubbed out her mouth, and set the photograph back–perhaps a reference to not having a voice. One felt a sense of entropy, immobility, and depression–as though fear had engulfed this woman. The cataloging of objects was reminiscent of someone creating a will prior to suicide, or the tendency of those on the verge of a breakdown to list the commonplace objects of their universe in order to get their bearings.

Rennie Sparks, in a gingham checked dress and smeared lipstick and moving amid fake flowers in jars full of water and a lone clam resting in a jar, showed her most overtly dramatic piece yet. In this monologue she explored the persona of a megalomaniac narcissist oddball who is stalking a young man named Jimmy King. She referred to herself as “Queen Rennie,” “Ren,” “Rennie,” and sometimes “Duchess.” As a study of madness it had some flaws: few crazy people are insane all the time, yet Sparks never behaved in a way that would seem within the realm of the normal. She needed to pull us into her world by seeming to be one of us, then turning and moving in and out of the realms of “crazy” and “normal.” This seemed more parody than representation.

Sparks is usually silky smooth and self-contained in presentation, and her pieces are tightly written. It was refreshing to see this change, and one can see where she may have wanted to take this monologue–on a sort of emotional high wire. But though she never quite gave a sense of being out of control, she won the audience over with her odd but charming delivery and the loopy, sometimes scathingly sharp ideas in her script, in which images from popular culture (some a bit needless) were scattered like mustard seeds and a turn of phrase vividly duplicated an emotion.

Next Julie Laffin, reclining atop her platform in an evening gown nailed to the floor and the target on her back, began her monologue, about the presence of “desire” in her childhood. She said her mother fell in love with a man named “Omar”–and a beat later, “Sharif.” She said (among other things) that her mother murdered her father with a nail gun and that she tried to make her into a Barbra Streisand clone. Her monologue was full of non sequiturs delivered dryly, almost as if she were asking for snare drums at every punch line. The cool delivery, the fact that we couldn’t see her face (weren’t intended to), and the fact that she was so far away made it difficult to feel much emotional impact. She became instead a study in cool. Her beautiful back with a target and her long evening dress offered up contradictory images. Was she a victim? Whose? Or was she a siren, a powerful creature?

Finally, with great effort, Laffin got up from her reclining pose, the fabric ripping from each nail and her mike magnifying that sound so that it filled the space. Then she came down the stairs, after tearing loose an overhanging “curtain” that was really part of her dress, and walked across the stage and out of the space, her long train trailing behind. With her delicate bones and soigne appearance, Laffin could easily position herself as a kind of performance “star.” Instead she works against type and concocts conceptual riddles, often dangerous to herself (in her last piece she put a plastic bag over her head).

Eija Pick Reed concluded the evening with a keenly developed piece exploring the sense of displacement an immigrant might feel moving to America in search of a better life and finding the acute ugliness and poverty that exist here side by side with hope and beauty. She began looking like a secretary, walking in a triangular pattern and counting, marching until she got to the number nine. After removing her jacket and tie, she began to move from one extreme character to another, from a sort of coquette (“I was the apple of my father’s eye”) to a Nazi drill sergeant to a staring evangelist intoning “Call on God now! Only nine ninety-nine!” She at times spoke German, then English. Later she said, “Interpreters are needed in assisting victims of torture . . . ”

An eerie, haunted quality permeated this work, emphasized by Gwenne Godwin’s skillful lighting design. Reed, who’s been working steadily since 1984 and has shown her work here and abroad, in this piece reveals the new depth time has brought to her perspective.


at Beacon Street Gallery & Theatre, June 6

On Sunday Ndikho and Nomusa Xaba, as well as percussionist Mark Vaughn, presented a lively, captivating concert of music and poetry called African Echoes at Beacon Street Gallery & Theatre. Poet Nomusa Xaba (a native Chicagoan) was dressed in a brown and white South African dress made of Adinka cloth with matching turban, and her husband, South Africa-born musician Ndikho Xaba, wore a Moroccan-styled shirt. Their instruments included a keyboard, various handmade devices (such as two single-stringed instruments from the same family, the “mother of all stringed instruments” called a umakheweyanna, which at times sounds like a sitar, a banjo, or an electric guitar), jingle bells, seed pods, a cowbell, a gourd covered with shells, and various drums. The music, accompanied and sometimes led by Nomusa’s poetry, had an organic, timeless feel. The sound when the pods were shaken was reminiscent of cicadas or wind rushing through trees, and the music (often only percussive) seemed to duplicate the very rhythms of the universe.

The songs and poems were highly politicized, often about the South African struggle but also about the struggle of all indigenous peoples, such as Native Americans, and ultimately of humanity. There was anger and defiance in some of these works, coupled with great joy and a sense of fellow feeling as the Xabas took their audience on a trip through South Africa–“way back,” as Nomusa intoned in her first poem. One heard almost gospel chords on the keyboard, and at other times something like early American blues. Ndikho called to Nomusa and Vaughn, and they answered in song or with another call. He scatted or vamped on the keyboard, and before long the audience was moving in rhythm to the music. At times Vaughn, Ndikho, or Nomusa took a turn dancing.

This concert captured the promise of all performance art–to provide a multidimensional multimedia experience that elevates and inspires the audience through a universal language often incorporating music, words, percussion, and spectacle. True, many conceptual artists declare their intent is not to entertain, but for all performance artists interested in learning something about captivating an audience, the Xabas are worth the watch.

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