The Loofah Method

at Live Bait Theater

Thursdays through Saturdays through February 28

Ah, cleverness. There’s just enough of it at the start of the Loofah Method’s new show, Looking for a Soft Place to Land, to make you wary. There’s performance poet Cin Salach on video, wearing her sunny smile under a ridiculous wig. And there’s musician Mark Messing on video, wearing something suggesting a pilot’s uniform, so we believe the two of them are supposed to be airline professionals, walking around, waiting for takeoff at O’Hare. It’s silly, kind of funny.

And then the video, “In Flight,” soars off into TV land, with clip after clip of the GOP convention, Rush Limbaugh, and the usual conservative targets. And you groan because, damn, this is exactly the kind of obvious politics you’d hoped the Loofah Method had gotten over.

But then something else happens. Marilyn Quayle’s gigantic face pops up grinning on the screen, saying over and over, “If only Murphy Brown could meet Major Dad.” At first the repetition–layered over a funky, whimsical slice of music–sounds like lite rap. But then it’s a mantra, and then an ominous warning: The wife of the former vice president of the U.S.A. is talking about two fictional characters as if they were real! “In Flight” is suddenly not funny anymore, and by the time the GOP hordes on the video are exhorting former president George Bush to “hit ’em again–harder, harder!” and we’re looking at clips of the LA police beating up Rodney King, you know the Loofah Method’s making all kinds of new connections.

Ordinarily these are the kinds of crescendoing images the Loofahs would reserve for the end of a show. But in Looking for a Soft Place to Land, this is where they begin. And that’s fitting, not only connecting the Loofahs’ previous iconography to the new work but setting the stage for a deeper exploration of their themes. Instead of looking at the GOP’s cynical use of “family values,” the Loofah Method offers a different set of questions: Just what are our connections? How do we define our values? What are we worth to each other? How willing are we to take responsibility for one another?

In fact, with this show Loofah has reversed its methodology: instead of looking for meaning on the outside to impose on the individual, it has decided to explore how the inside–the deeply personal–shapes our social politics. This change makes Looking for a Soft Place to Land easily Loofah Method’s most coherent and provocative program.

In keeping with Loofah tradition, the current show is a mix of new work and reworked older pieces. After the initial segment, the program features three retooled works in a row. “Natural Gas,” one of the group’s most haunting videos, has been stripped down to a live solo outing by Salach followed by a wordless video segment. Though the new version lacks the complexity of the original, it has an immediacy that would have been unimaginable before.

“Beautiful Women” has been recast as a video by Kurt Heintz. Although his images are more romantic and less effective than ex-Loofah Sue Walsh’s slides were, the piece benefits from the directorial contributions of Live Bait’s artistic director, Sharon Evans. Small gestural movements whose conscious theatricality would have made them unthinkable for Loofah even a year ago give the piece a newfound authority.

“Memory,” one of Salach’s most effective pieces of writing, also has Evans’s fingerprints on it. In this version Salach herself manipulates the materials of the piece, particularly the large photograph of her grandmother, instead of just overseeing them. This diminishes some of her grandeur but heightens the piece’s credibility and makes for a much greater impact.

The last two works, “Holding Patterns” and the title poem, are brand-new and show a new kind of confidence. Although it’s uncredited, the bulk of “Holding Patterns” was written by Heintz, with contributions from Salach and Messing. (This may be the first time the Loofahs have worked with a piece not primarily written by Salach.) A kind of triptych, “Holding Patterns” confronts the dilemma of identity and social consciousness directly–and amusingly. Heintz is conversational, friendly; Messing deadpans; Salach is a deliberate blur behind a gauze screen.

The poem “Looking for a Soft Place to Land” is a Salach barrage. Powerful, hypnotic, surprisingly organic, and still hopeful, the piece brings the show full circle. It also holds a surprise that won’t be ruined here. It’s clever–but not just for the sake of cleverness. In fact, it makes perfect, wonderful sense.