Lisa Kotin

at Chicago Filmmakers, September 23 and 24

“How do you ever expect to catch a man with all that mime going on?” a father says to his mime-besotted teenage daughter in one of the vignettes within Lisa Kotin’s skillful, funny one-woman show Beyond the Fridge. Following this accusation/musing/indictment, Kotin first performs live, then stars in a film called How to Catch a Man, in which she attempts to interest various men on the street by performing one mime cliche after another: walking against the wind, attempting to get out of a box, walking upstairs, walking in place, eating imaginary food in a cafe. The men respond with indifference, astonishment, or disgust, until finally a sweet-faced man seems truly interested. And Kotin runs away in terror.

The 12 scenes in Beyond the Fridge (in part directed by Phil Setren) are essentially an extended meditation on women, men, and food. Kotin mixes performance with film to drive home some of the conscious and unconscious motivations of her character, Laurel. But absent is a serious examination of the despair and sense of powerlessness under the relentless male gaze her character seems to feel. Instead Laurel is a princess of denial, indulging her unfocused passion and sense of impotence in the consumption of chocolate, the pursuit of a modeling career, and finally the creation of a fitness video in which she shows women how to hide or augment various parts of their physiques while making love, enthusiastically demonstrating in a Victoria’s Secret-style teddy.

Laurel leads a driven but unexamined life, out of the fray of contemporary feminist dialogue and/or politics. Kotin has seemingly remained deliberately aloof from recent discourse by Carol Becker, Camille Paglia, Susan Faludi, and Roland Barthes in regard to the artist and social responsibility, women, the male gaze, appearance, and sexual politics. Her character is instead a “fool” or “scapegoat,” someone who points to what is reprehensible in our culture and to the self-loathing in herself and many women, but who steps away from any culpability for perpetuating negative female stereotypes.

Obsessed with food, her own appearance, and men, Laurel goes to several therapists, each time letting her mother know–almost a plea for help–but concluding the phone conversations with “Don’t tell Dad.” All of her therapists are women, and each one reveals a different failing of the psychiatric profession: one is acquisitive and spends the entire session discussing her fee, another is a new-age guru. None is able to save Laurel from herself.

Male figures are sketchy, disguised, or absent. We hear the voice of a photographer at a photo shoot marveling at Laurel’s ability to portray angst while Laurel internally agonizes over whether her previous binge reveals itself in her stomach or face. To her men are “Mr. Good Bars”–literally candy bars fulfilling a deep longing. And their absence is what seems to push Kotin’s character to be the ultrafeminine, man-pleasing monster she reveals herself to be by the conclusion. The connection Kotin reveals between men and food also exposes women’s dilemma: they can’t feed their emotional hunger with food and remain thin and attractive to men, leading women to an insidious, at times dangerous relationship with food and the appearance of their bodies. She allows us to laugh at a situation that’s frighteningly real and current. One can’t help wondering to what lengths this character might go to please a man. Would she undergo a clitorectomy? Breast augmentation? Would she starve herself? Is she bulimic or anorexic?

What she actually does is what a great number of women in our society do, which is to hide behind an outwardly pliant, attractive public persona. Beneath it is an angry, steely woman who considers herself merely in disguise–in drag, so to speak–in order to move through her life without difficulty or unpleasant confrontations. Could Laurel’s absurd best-selling video be any stranger or more absurd than Buns of Steel? There is a palpable poignancy in the fact that Laurel evolves from a courageous, weird teenager who studied mime while her friends were drinking and doing drugs and going out with boys into this siren who will beat society at its own game.

Kotin, who not only performs but directed the six films in Beyond the Fridge, has a wonderfully appealing face, as asymmetrically evocative as a young Anna Magnani, all angles and eyes and beautifully curved lips. After performing in New York for more than a decade, she recently moved here, and she’s got to be one of the tightest performers working in Chicago. She never falters, seemingly always in control of the space, tightly focused, and absolutely there for her audience. And as if all that weren’t enough, she’s funny too.