Spiderwoman Theater

at the Edgewater Theater Center

October 24-27

Reviewing a work in progress is a lot like evaluating a restaurant by walking around the kitchen and smelling the food as it’s being prepared. The fact is, you never really know how it’s going to turn out. It could be great, but then again, it might not.

Though Spiderwoman Theater called Power Pipes, its Chicago debut after a six-week residency, a work in progress, the show did play to paying audiences at the Edgewater Theater Center. And in addition to its unfinished state, Power Pipes carries the burden of severe political correctness.

Spiderwoman, a troupe of American Indian women, is one of the oldest feminist theaters in the country–just about every kind of critic has praised it to high heaven. I went to the show predisposed to like it–as a Hispanic woman and a lesbian, I appreciate the need for work by and about women, especially women of color. But I walked away from Power Pipes feeling only a kind of ennui.

I left wondering: Is it me? Admittedly my exposure to American Indians and their cultures has been limited. Am I insufficiently educated to get it? Or was my gut feeling that the piece was not up to par justified?

Certainly the Indians in the audience seemed thrilled. But was their excitement a response to the piece itself or just appreciation at seeing themselves? I know that often my friends and I react to images of Latinos not because they’re real but because sometimes we’re so hungry for any reflection. Could the situation here have been similar?

A series of stories and monologues, Power Pipes attempts to tell stories from an Indian perspective while touching upon universal themes of love, loss, identity, spirituality, and survival. But though the show was technically very good and the performances were strong, the writing and direction were wholly unfocused.

For one thing, though much of the material seems autobiographical or confessional, at times the actors take on personas different from what we can assume are their own. And given the fact that the three sisters who make up the heart of Spiderwoman grew up in New York City, why do the set design and costuming suggest a stereotypical southwestern pueblo?

Blurring the line between what’s real and what’s fiction–what might be called “authentic” and what might be reappropriation of oppressive stereotypes–suggests that the whole show be interpreted allegorically. And this has its repercussions. If the stories are not bound to the “facts,” if they’re inventions for moral or artistic purposes, then we expect them to have a direction–a point. We want the stories to have a beginning, middle, and end. Most of the time, they don’t. They start off with an intriguing image or potential conflict, then fade. Stories come and go without resolution or continuity. With perhaps one or two exceptions, as individual tales they’re completely forgettable.

This would be unfortunate under any circumstances, but Spiderwoman’s raison d’etre is what they call “storyweaving.” So we have high expectations of their stories that are not fulfilled.

The show begins with a woman frantically digging at the earth. “I dig up the secrets of the past,” Elvira Colorado says. “I gather up the light and take it into the future.” This scene sets the stage for the rest of the evening–introducing the idea of connections, of using the experience of the past to inform the future. Perhaps predictably, the performers encourage the audience to have pride in their cultures, in their heritage, especially during these oppressive times. “Protect your culture,” Gloria Miguel intones. “Love and nurture the children.” One by one, the women come forth. “This is my medicine,” says Lisa Mayo, repeating one of the evening’s refrains.

In most of these pieces reality exists on different levels, but unfortunately the transitions from one level to another are often clumsy. In one scene, Monique Mojica takes a shower while deities from another dimension engage in a metaphysical discourse; in another she’s simultaneously sitting at her kitchen table and resolving a spiritual conflict on another plane.

It’s not as though there aren’t strong moments in Power Pipes. When the women work together it’s often wonderful. Their family connections–the three older women are sisters, and one of the younger ones is Gloria Miguel’s daughter–suggest a deep power. But that power remains at the level of suggestion. I felt there was so much that could have been said that wasn’t.

The piece that received the strongest audience response was a story by Muriel Miguel about her decision “to make it with a woman.” Strongly theatrical, it offered the only dramatic conflict in the show. As Muriel talks excitedly about her adventure–a wacky tale involving schizophrenics, Amsterdam, and a woman covered in tiger balm and oregano–sister Gloria, perhaps suffering a bout of homophobia, tries desperately to get away from her. The writing itself needs sharpening, but the elements are so striking–and Muriel’s delivery was so personally revealing–that it easily rocked the house. If only there had been more stories like this one.