Cheryl Trykv’s secret weapon is her voice: ranging from a tangled-sheets purr to a silky, low sucker-punch of sarcasm, it’s the bridge between the gentle camp of her screen-queen delivery and the mercurial, out-for-a-thrill amorality of the very modern women who are her characters. The effect is sometimes a bit unnerving, particularly when the voice rasps out phrases–“His nostrils are splotched with black Magic Marker. He says he’s been making signs”–that you could never imagine coming from, say, Bette Davis. But it’s the voice that makes the jokes work, that inhabits the characters and nails the stories to your memory.

Take “Paw Paw for Jesus,” a riotous boho Thelma and Louise that sees an out-of-towner with a chip on her shoulder on the lam after a cultural clash with a checkout girl in Paw Paw, Michigan. Suddenly she’s on the roadside, flagging down a passing van.

“On the side of it,” our heroine relates conversationally, “there’s a mural with what King Arthur and Guinevere might look like in the year 2500. King Arthur wears a gold-mesh nuclear cleanup suit. He carries a sword in one hand, a laser gun in the other. Guinevere is nude and awesomely buxom. Where her pubic hair might be she holds the Holy Grail. The driver leans over and opens the door.

“It’s a man,” breathes Trykv. “What a surprise.”

“Paw Paw for Jesus” is one of the ten stories and poems in Shirley Girl!, Trykv’s breakneck-paced one-woman show ongoing at the Live Bait Theater. The show is a collection of the pieces–call it “Cheryl Trykv’s Greatest Hits”–she’s been performing for some time, at her own events at Lower Links and regular performances at Milly’s Orchid Show and elsewhere. These “pieces”–they’re all about someone named Shirley, though not always the same person–slide around on the slippery surface where theater, poetry, and the short story fall together. “Empty Pages,” certainly, is poetry: “Empty pages making time ticking clocks parked in lot writer jam on freeway shirt and tie tied in knot head twist of sheet shows regret.” The show-closing tour de force “Cafe Voovi,” however, is a riveting and extravagant interior monologue with the unity and focus of a tidy piece of fiction. And works like “Paw Paw for Jesus,” or even the more existential “Tijuana Weekend,” are twisted but deliberate action-packed romantic thrillers played out on theatrical, almost cinematic landscapes.

The stories are filled with loopy digressions (“Let me tell you something about myself”), intellectual U-turns (“I felt like . . . an iguana. No, not an iguana”), and the occasional cyanide-tipped bullet directed at its owner (“Why do I like this guy–well, sure, we’re both potheads, but . . . “). The creator of this droll and challenging entertainment is a 30-year-old native of Torrance, California. (Her name, she says, almost believably, is Danish. Pronunciation? The alternate name for the show was “The Girl With the Silent V.”) She was making the rounds of LA poetry clubs–and had even made a trip or two to Chicago to perform–when living on the fault line became too much to bear. “I was afraid the earthquake was going to hit; I thought everything was just gonna go,” she says. “I just had an anxiety attack. I blew up at my boss, I came home, and my phone was disconnected. That was it. I went out to a pay phone and bought a ticket to Chicago.”

She says that the blowup at her boss–she was an editorial assistant at Architectural Digest–indeed occurred on the occasion of her six-month review, just like the one in the story called “Up the Butt.” In the piece, Shirley, for unexplained reasons, suggests that her employer perform a proverbially anatomically impossible act. (Shirley Girl’s one moment of self-conscious theatricality is a burst of lighting accompanying Shirley’s realization of the cosmic forces the suggestion unleashes, and nicely sets up Trykv’s deadly delivery of her boss’s response: “That’s OK, Shirley. I’ll go fuck myself up the butt. I was going to do that anyway.”)

In Chicago since 1989, Trykv’s done the usual–waitressing, auditions, making occasional appearances–and grown more ambitious in her writing, to some extent moving away from poetry and into denser and more ornate theatrical set pieces. Shirley Girl, her biggest show yet, showcases her continuing growth as a writer (it’s always a good sign when the newest pieces are the best ones) and a performer as well: Decked out to perform in Milly’s Orchid Show, Trykv wears gaudy accoutrements that are probably a necessary device in the cavernous Park West. But for the confines of the Live Bait, she’s effectively deglamorized herself; plainer and simpler in a thrift-shop dress, she’s forced to act more and project more.

Shirley Girl is evenly divided between Trykv’s larger-scale stories and shorter, more abstract poetry, and while the best pieces don’t have a unified theme, they do tend to involve a woman facing unusual circumstances–whether it’s being lost and alone in Tijuana, being hassled in Paw Paw, liking a guy who’s into sniffing Magic Markers, or just having a bad day at work–and responding the way a modern girl should: taking it on the run, going with the flow.

But Shirley Girl isn’t all action-packed drama. “Cafe Voovi,” Trykv’s newest and best piece, is a masterpiece of controlled psychological compression, packing a bristling portrait of palpable insanity into the time it takes the character to order a cappuccino. And the boy with the Magic Marker on his nose is probably a loser, but Shirley, ruminating in his bathroom, doesn’t care: “I like him. I think he’s sexy!” The moral? In Shirley Girl it’s easy: Sometimes the girl gets her boy, and sometimes she goes straight to hell. “Wanna come?” smirks Trykv.

Shirley Girl! is playing at the Live Bait Theater, 3914 N. Clark, at least through May 30, with shows Friday and Saturday nights at 11. Tix are $8; call 871-1212 for information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J. Alexander Newberry.