Baubo Performance Project

at Link’s Hall, through March 10

By Laura Molzahn

There are long moments when Summertime chills the bones. A woman throws herself against a closed door, screaming “Let me in!” A woman who towers over the stage repeats in a commanding, stentorian voice: “Answer me!” A woman barrels from one corner to another to yell until breathless the litany “Don’t come in, don’t come in, don’t come in!…I’m not dressed.” A woman crouched in a bushel basket with a light glowing between her legs rises to her full height slowly, intoning an urgent, bluesy song about the bed she’s prepared for a loved one. “Please come home,” she pleads, “to rest in peace.”

It seems to me that a lot of companies say more about a new kind of feminist theater than they do about it. Baubo Performance Project is doing something about it. This collective of seven young women, most of them recent graduates of Northwestern University, have here attempted not a feminist subject–a press release says the piece explores “loss and remembrance”–but a feminist approach. Writer-director Lee Anne Schmitt and the five other Baubo members who’ve choreographed, composed, and designed the piece never forget that they’re women, and they never let us forget it: everything from their long, white sleeveless dresses to their girlish voices reminds us. At the same time they’re tough on stereotypes of all kinds, never allowing the piece to come anywhere near a sweet or sentimental view.

A lot of Summertime’s stringency and power derives from its use of the voice–something that sets it apart from WanderLust, which Baubo performed at the Athenaeum Theatre as part of Dance Chicago ’95 last fall. All five performers sing Sara Kraft’s compositions, but Kraft herself gives them a particular urgency and dynamic range. When she rises from the bushel basket, her feathery hair floating around her head, singing the seductive, threatening words of a mother calling her child home to the grave, she seems a siren calling us to a place of simultaneous comfort and danger. The effect comes not only from the song’s lyrics–which are creepy enough–but from the way Kraft sings them, using her full emotional range, from a breathless, unintelligible whisper to a hysterically fast and high-pitched prayer. Sophia Skiles’s voice is also well employed, though it’s her speaking voice that’s powerful. It’s a shock to hear words come out of her small, delicate body so deep and resonant, as if a Cassandra were caged inside her bones.

Kraft and Skiles are often paired in Summertime, Kraft asking Skiles questions. Sometimes Kraft seems a psychologist interrogating a rather daft and distanced patient: What did you do today? (I did what was expected of me.) Was there no travel? (No.) Did you write any poetry? (Some, but it wasn’t very good.) What about love? (No love, only courtesy from strangers. And that doesn’t count.) Often melancholy, their exchanges grow increasingly intimate yet maintain an eerie coldness: when Kraft confesses that she’s leaving soon and that she’ll miss Skiles, Skiles responds that she’ll miss Kraft at first, then forget her.

Martha Donovan and Marianne Kim form another pair. But their exchanges are more casual, even ironic. Their first “conversation” is like a vaudeville song-and-dance number set to what seems to be 70s sitcom music, overly bright and vaguely Caribbean. After smiling their way through some cheesy dance numbers, they begin discussing what would happen if they fell in love. Donovan, doing most of the talking, says they’d go to Paris, where she’d watch Kim butter a brioche in a particularly tender way and their love would become permanent. They’d grow old together, and Kim would get sick and Donovan would take care of her, always remembering the way she buttered her pastry. “Then you’d die,” Donovan says (at which Kim looks rather shocked). And Donovan would remember her “somewhat too kindly, as others would say.” This humorous cliched dialogue, delivered brightly and artificially, does much to separate the piece from the overused currency of love. In general there’s something brusque and offhanded in Donovan and Kim’s interactions, which are often danced (sometimes with Karen Krolak), setting their relationship apart from the more charged connection between Kraft and Skiles.

In Summertime certain texts are repeated or woven together with others. Themes are reiterated: summer and winter, trips to the sea, illness and death, closed doors, maternal distance. Visually Baubo has created a wonderfully unified place–a kind of abandoned summer house that recalls Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse–using parasols made of dried grass and sticks, a rocking chair and stepladder in weathered gray, dilapidated sheets of butcher paper over the Link’s Hall windows, draped chairs, a string of lights overhead as if for an evening garden party, an impossibly long string of pearls on the floor, an equally long string of books. Projections against the rear wall show the patterns of leaves and branches, a negative image of a face, a color photo of a garden. We hear an Edith Piaf recording and a saxophone rendition of “Willow Weep for Me.” But as expertly as these technical devices may establish mood and even content, they aren’t what set Summertime apart.

Not everything about the piece is expert or well considered. Episodic and jam-packed with stories and texts, the work seems too long though it lasts only an hour: it peaks emotionally way before it ends. (My eyes began to glaze over with the story of the botanist at the North Pole.)

Still, there’s an originality to Summertime, connected with the female voice, that cannot fail to touch. These women aren’t relying on their literary studies or what other theater companies are doing to create their work. Never forgetting that they’re women yet never falling back on feminist doctrine, they seem to have searched the places within themselves that are most female. Addressing love in many forms, and the loss of love through death or failing memory, Baubo gives most of the feeling in Summertime to a bitter, inevitable separation from the mother. And it’s a tribute to their talent that they can make that separation, so old and distant and ever present, an immediate and tangible fact we must wrestle yet again.