Kathy Randels

at Cafe Voltaire

“I’m going to tell you a story,” says Kathy Randels to open her solo performance Rage Within/Without. Her head is slightly bowed and she holds a small lamp in her hands, casting demonic shadows across her face. Her voice is an unsteady rasp, though she stares wide-eyed at her audience, unflinching, a slightly crazed smile on her lips. She’s dangerous.

“It’s a good story,” she insists. “It’s about women and anger. You’re going to like it.”

This striking opening creates a performance persona full of compelling contradictions. She is strong and defiant, her gaze locked on us unerringly. Yet she uses cheap theatrical lighting to make herself look more imposing. She is confident of her material, speaking deliberately and directly, clearly in control of the situation. Yet she must harbor some enormous insecurity, for, like a playground bully, she threatens us: we are going to like this piece. If we don’t like the piece, she might lock us all in this tiny basement room and coolly strangle us one at a time–or she might break into childish, hysterical sobs.

In any case, it is clear that for her to actually confront her own anger is a terrifying prospect.

This persona is perfectly suited to lead us through the dark and at times truly frightening psychological landscape of Rage Within/Without. The piece weaves together dreams, personal memories, historical anecdotes, social-science theories–all examining the ways our society denies women the right to feel and express anger.

It may seem an inconsequential topic to some. But Randels, like many contemporary feminist artists, shows that such institutionalized repression of feelings in essence denies women a part of their humanity. At one extreme it can leave them feeling worthless and numb, at the other, homicidal.

Intelligently, Randels spends most of the piece exploring the middle ground, where most women arguably dwell. “When I was 12 years old, it was always my fault,” she tells us. No matter how many times her brother beat her up, her mother, eternally lying in bed, reading Harlequin romances and eating Andes mints, would casually pass off his violence as part of “being a boy.” Later Randels tells us of her dream of telling off a lover who dumped her. But no matter how acutely aware she is of the injustice done to her, she’s very inarticulate about it–all she can do is call him an “asshole.” She ends up saying in the dream, “I always forgave you, and I always will, motherfucker.”

These scenes, like several others, are performed blindfolded. Each story is accompanied by simple, stylized hand gestures–Randels locks her arms behind her back, slaps her face, reaches out to cup someone else’s face. These gestures at times literally illustrate the stories, but more often than not form a kind of accompanying dance, allowing the stories to float in an ambiguous reality. While the performer seems to be speaking of her own experience, these sometimes unconnected gestures imply that the stories have been culled from various sources, or perhaps are simply invented, like the gestures themselves.

Authorship is rendered moot. Instead of indulging herself in a monologue that simply laments her own situation, Randels implies that a series of voices are speaking through her, voices that she has perhaps heard all too often.

The technique of speaking as a kind of medium is perhaps best known from the performances of Karen Finley, and Randels has certainly benefited from Finley’s ground-breaking work. But Randels also speaks as historian, adopting the detached, objective voice of the social scientist to report past theories about women that are anything but detached and objective. She tells us of 19th-century criminologist Caesar Lambroso, who attempted to isolate the difference between the “good woman” and the “natural criminal woman”–as if every woman were simply one or the other. Otto Pollack, a criminologist in the 1950s, believed that women become violent because of misplaced anger at menstruation, which continually reminds them that they can never be men.

This leads Randels to come up with a little social science of her own–namely, a history of women in America who have committed murder. She takes us from the 17th to the 20th century, showing us the typical dehumanizing circumstances that have led women to kill, as well as describing their typical victims–usually their children, husbands, or lovers. This section, recounted almost without emotion by Randels, is horrifying, especially because she casually wields an ice pick throughout, popping a balloon full of water to demonstrate each murder.

Rage Within/Without is the kind of piece that in less skilled hands would degenerate into an abrasive harangue. But by creating a persona so emotionally unpredictable, unsure of whether she will explode into fury or collapse into sobs, Randels acknowledges the highly charged and psychologically complex nature of her material. No simple answers are given. And like her performance persona, we are also allowed to be unsure of our feelings. Randels does not assign guilt to any one party–to men, society, or whatever–for as she shows in the piece, guilt is an emotion that continually causes women to swallow their anger and become “good women.” Rather, Randels creates a space where it’s safe for us to examine our own stake in this situation, whatever that stake may be, and to allow our emotions to come to the surface.