Pigs at the Trough of Attention

Sweat Girls

at Cafe Ashie, through November 1

White Light

Radiant Theatre

at National Pastime Theater, through October 25

By Justin Hayford

Some years ago I went to see the late, great Sock Monkeys with the late, great Larry Sloan. As was their wont, the Sock Monkeys did nothing onstage that seemed to require much skill–walking back and forth, jumping up and down, riding bicycles in a circle–yet their concert was beguiling. As was his wont, Larry neatly explained how this could be: “They’re very good at making an audience like them.”

In the world of performance–and especially the world of performance monologues–such likability is gold. And the Sweat Girls have enough to fill Fort Knox. Like the Sock Monkeys, they make no great display of skill in Pigs at the Trough of Attention, their eighth collective effort since their 1993 premiere I’m Sweating Under My Breasts. They just stand at a microphone one at a time and read monologues from manuscripts. The work is somewhat uneven, which comes as no surprise since the Girls write new material each week (they even create brief pieces on the spot during intermission). With production values that make Jerzy Grotowski look like Louis XIV, not to mention considerable vocal competition from Cafe Ashie’s patrons (there’s a full bar in the room where the show takes place), you’d think the Girls would have to work their sweaty breasts off to make their seat-of-the-pants showcase fly–or even make it audible.

But they don’t work hard. They work smart, placing a premium on genuine forthrightness and vulnerability. Candid enough to make us feel instantly comfortable, these women are still formal enough to let us know that things aren’t just thrown together. They seem to understand that Pigs–which is structurally indistinguishable from readings at an advanced creative-writing seminar–is not an evening likely to bowl anyone over. Rather than employing costumes, sets, lighting, or big acting in attempts to make their work interesting, they let their work be interesting–or not, on occasion. But the performers ingratiate themselves so naturally with their audience that their most boring moments maintain an undeniable hold over us.

Dorothy Milne’s opening piece, “Unavailable,” is a case in point. Meant to document the encroachment of technology into Milne’s life, the piece is a rather random assemblage of anecdotes ranging from entrancing to trite. But Milne is such an endearing performer (largely because, like all the Sweat Girls, she hardly seems to be performing at all) that her moments of banality are easily forgiven. It’s her presence more than anything that holds our attention. By the end of her first sentence she seems like an old friend–and who of us demands our friends be interesting all the time?

It’s not as though the Sweat Girls simply squeak by on charm, however. As writers, they have a knack for plunging an audience into odd, not quite parallel universes. Clare Nolan-Long whisks us away to a romantic market square in “Tangiers,” where she and paramour Ted meander among picturesque locals as though wandering unfettered through a perfume ad. “I’ve had just enough sun that mascara is all I need to look breathtaking,” she coos. In “Ah, Love,” Jenifer Tyler transforms her living room into a kind of surgical gallery, slicing herself open to reveal the insecure, fix-everything-at-any-cost girlfriend she’s become after a few years in a relationship. And Pamela Webster drags us along as she rummages “head down, ass up” through a suburban dumpster cum reliquary. While these pieces all suffer from a lack of internal complication–they mistake the reiteration of one or two ideas for thematic development–the writers’ carefully constructed images make for vivid listening.

Of the pieces I saw, only Cindy Hanson’s “Sheila & the Grease,” about the writer’s brief and unsuccessful flirtation with her brash, barbarous alter ego, seemed thorough enough to be considered finished. But, then, perhaps the Sweat Girls aren’t terribly interested in finished pieces in this show. They seem more intrigued by promising beginnings. And there are a lot worse ways to spend an evening than sipping a martini and listening to intelligent fits and starts.

While the Sweat Girls exploit the simple beauty of unadorned candor, the Radiant Theatre attempts to create a stylized, poetic epic in White Light, a “speechless musical” made up entirely of dance, movement, and pantomime. Dressed in white undergarments, sunglasses, and white geomorphic headgear (imagine Oskar Schlemmer designing Rocky Horror), the ten cast members execute military routines, Hollywood-style dance numbers, and occasional bits of domestic drudgery.

The trouble is, there’s precious little thematic coherence. Director Shannon Epplett explains in a lengthy program note that the recent proliferation and glorification of technology in America has left us “more disconnected from one another than ever before.” The idea is ripe for exploration (Laura Eason already took a stab at it in Lookingglass’s 28), but this show bears only the most tangential relationship to the director’s note. One early Fred-and-Ginger duet, for example, concludes when the dancers “discover” a floppy disk. But the discovery has no measurable impact on them or on the rest of the piece; they could have stumbled across any object. At other times performers fiddle with or are befuddled by an electric typewriter, a cordless phone, a vacuum cleaner, and a 20-year-old television in escapades generally too cute for their own good. In any event it’s hard to see these innocuous pieces of machinery as technological threats.

Epplett does best when she indulges in poker-faced absurdity: a young woman eating her lipstick and mascara, for example, or a mother serving her kids Clorox as an afternoon snack. But as a whole, White Light is nearly opaque.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Pigs at the Trough of Attention cast photo by Suzanne Plunkett.