at Cafe Voltaire, through
By Carol Burbank
When Louise Bogan wrote that “women have no wilderness in them,” she captured the toxic passion for order and smallness ingrained in the feminine ideal. Now that eating disorders–the embodiment of that urge to invisibility–have gone public in sensational, politicized narratives of modern womanhood, personal stories of binging, purging, and self-starvation have become part of artistic commerce. The idea seems to be that stories shared need never be repeated. Like Holocaust survivors, women share their gaunt despair as a way of preventing the destruction of others as well as themselves.
But these personal holocausts, unlike the mass murders of World War II, grow from an internalized enemy. To isolate and exorcise that inner, culturally created mirror of self-hatred, women with eating disorders must embrace the very wilderness of rage and disorder they rejected with their bodies, a dynamic that makes the performance of an anorexic’s narrative very tricky. Simultaneously expressing control and the rejection of control, it must embody a time when the storyteller literally attempted to disembody herself. Add to this challenge the ordinary tasks of performance and you’ll see why anorexia is featured more commonly on talk shows than on theater boards.
Improv performer Abby Schachner, who filled an unexpected opening at Cafe Voltaire with her personal story Plate, does pretty well at capturing the wilderness of her own recovery. A volatile performer backed by brashness and irreverence, she moves abruptly from the fantastical to the confrontational, interrupting her own tirades with obsessively performed exercises or quiet personal monologues. The sellout audience–fellow improvisers and improv fans–were eager to laugh at her appropriately bitter humor, giving the show a feeling in between triumphal family event and bittersweet freak show.
That’s ironic, because Schachner’s performance is decidedly unfreakish. Her playful metaphoric fantasies are smart and risky. She passes out carrot sticks to the audience, then reveals them to be the meal of choice on airline “flight 32-24-32,” where barf bags are designed for repeated use and special seating is reserved for every possible disorder. She enacts a long courtship with a Bundt cake, drawing out the drama of each consummation as if the confection were a difficult but hypnotic lover. She belts out strange songs based on generic-sounding musical-theater riffs, inviting us to join her in her refrigerator where she casts us as moldy cheese, vegetables, and other characters in her food drama. And she tells her own story, sometimes bluntly, sometimes archly, but always with a genuineness that compels attention.
The combination of a late-night improv audience and Schachner’s Second City-trained presentation made Plate seem abrupt and chummy even as it explored the surreal nature of eating disorders. The evening ends with Schachner’s victory over her cake paramour, but it seems more like just the final skit in a series than the capping moment of health. Perhaps with more time her performance will come together as a single, polished journey. But even with Schachner’s jumpy pacing and one-note performance style, Plate is one of those direct, sometimes goofy performances that succeed because of their straightforward naivete. Its greatest strength is that Schachner is too irreverent to be maudlin. With more years, and continued chutzpah, she’ll find a complicated and fascinating wilderness to instruct our more domesticated storytellers.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tamara Federici.