at Cafe Voltaire

I’m Sweating Under My Breasts is an evening of monologues by eight of the city’s busiest and, in some cases, best up-and-coming women theater artists–not one of whom has staked any prior claim on the local performance scene. And despite the assertions of director Dorothy Milne that what they’re doing is performance, not theater, the show is pretty theatrical and pretty conservative. The stories have conventional time lines, characterizations, and plots; the direction includes actual blocking (however minimal). But why argue the point? No matter what you call it, you’ll have a pretty entertaining evening with the Pretzelrod ensemble.

The show’s structure is simple enough: each actor gets up at Voltaire’s stripped-down cabaret space and performs an original piece, which may or may not be autobiographical (they all sound as if they were). Each monologue is introduced by an image projected onto the back wall showing the performer with a sign announcing her name and the title of her piece. The props are minimal (a chair, a leather jacket); lighting is basic; and because the show has built a surprisingly steady following, foam pads and blankets are laid out on the floor at the foot of the stage, putting audience members even closer to the performers than usual. The night I attended, the show lasted about two hours and was practically sold-out.

I’m Sweating Under My Breasts is about two monologues too long, and most of the writing is somewhat predictable. The sensibilities here are white, heterosexual, and middle-class, but the show isn’t smug or boring; on the contrary, it has a certain warmth and earnestness. And overall the work is well acted, well directed, and well written. The women’s subjects are all over the map, but they tend toward men and dating, food and friendship, women and their mothers.

Pamela Webster’s eerie tale about her mother’s probable madness is the most vulnerable and moving of the evening, and Webster gives a powerful but restrained performance. She avoids attempts to be rational about the irrational or to imbue her mother’s condition with magical qualities, instead embracing its chaotic nature. She does explore the genetic possibility of her own eventual derangement with a sense of urgency, but ultimately Webster knows that we–yes, we too–are at equal risk of random breaks with reality, moments when our worlds crack and are forever altered.

Cindy Hanson and Clare Nolan-Long also tackle motherhood, but from different angles and with different results. Hanson tells her story from a daughter’s perspective, which here is romantic and full of longing. Nolan-Long, who insists she’s a happily married woman and cheerful new mother, deconstructs and sort of self-destructs in a very funny piece about incorporating a new, insistent life into her schedule. The most theatrical of the bunch, Nolan-Long takes on aging and responsibility by building on tiny details and familiar settings, but she shakes everything up with her fresh approach. Part of her charm lies in her expressive face, which can be simultaneously cool and neurotic.

Milne also transforms her piece by using her impish face to give her story a darker quality. “Weirdos” is ostensibly about Milne not understanding how idiosyncratic her family was until she moved out, but it touches on alienation and acceptance, sex and danger. Although the story wraps up in a very conventional manner, the writing is mostly solid, and Milne’s acting gives the tale a bite it might not have on the page.

Another standout is Rose Abdoo, who deadpans her way through her meditation on food and dieting. Probably the evening’s most straightforwardly comedic piece, it is also the lightest and most effervescent. Yet Abdoo is the least theatrical performer of the bunch: like Milne, she seems to be talking directly to the audience, responding to their laughter and moods. She makes her piece seem more like a conversation with an old friend than a performance.

The other players are Jane Blass, whose “Cool” is a bit long; Martha Sanders, whose “Giant” has the potential to become dark and surreal but remains hopelessly cute; and Jennifer Tyler, whose “Voice” is a bit self-serving.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne N. Plunkett.