What Ever (An American Odyssey in 8 Acts)

at Steppenwolf Studio Theatre

By Carol Burbank

By the second night of Heather Woodbury’s solo show What Ever (An American Odyssey in 8 Acts), audience members were gossiping about her characters as if they were eccentric coworkers or neighbors. Filling in neophytes on the past evening’s stories, many of those analyzing the characters with such gusto stopped only when the lights went down.

Woodbury calls the work a “performance novel,” a cross between Charles Dickens’s serial novels and performance art. This four-evening event, each show including two acts, is more like a soap opera on acid, however. The ten main characters ramble through their cross-country love affairs and vision quests while a cast of 90 whirls around them, complicating their voyage with drunken binges, mistaken identities, ghostly hauntings, drug rehabs, and midlife crises. One goofy scene in the last act ties all the strings together in an arbitrary knot that supposedly reconciles the event’s spiritual, orgasmic, and practical sides–a bit of a letdown after Woodbury’s wild ride, which returns us finally to the Pacific Ocean. In the end the event’s primary story–a teen love triangle between two girls and a boy–becomes an excuse to meet some amazing people and wink at the addled American dream.

Woodbury, a veteran of the New York performance underground, started What Ever on a dare from her friend (now her director and editor) Dudley Saunders. He challenged her to write a new play every week for a year; she changed the term to nine months, favoring the pregnancy metaphor. Eventually the pair edited her partly improvised, partly scripted hour-long pieces, performed in the back of an East Village bar, into a P.S. 122 showcase, which has become this touring show. It’s the perfect low-cost one-woman traveling circus. Where Karen Finley pontificates, Spalding Gray drops names and neuroses, and Lily Tomlin carries the audience with brilliantly spare storytelling, Woodbury just talks, really fast and really loud. And if you can’t follow, or you don’t care for the person currently onstage, you just wait until she gets back to a story you do like.

Using a microphone and a few chairs, Woodbury plays all 100 characters as they converse, fuck, argue, pray, and rave about life in these United States. She doesn’t have Tomlin’s gift for precise gestural shorthand, but her vocal skill is considerable: we immediately recognize her ten main characters’ voices, among them Skeeter’s pothead whine, the prostitute Bushie’s braying rage, frustrated housewife Polly Folsom’s butterfly falsetto, the bourbon-soaked Violet Smith’s meditative mumble, and rave poet Clove Carnelian’s spaced-out nasal drone. And in the process of realizing these characters, Woodbury skewers the Christian Coalition, the New Age movement, liberal capitalists, sanctimonious environmentalists, polluting corporations, and all naivete except the pragmatic kind.

Perhaps because of the paucity of visual cues, I found myself imagining everything from the rapidly changing scenes to the characters’ clothing. In fact, What Ever may be better as a radio show than as live performance (tapes were played on WBEZ last weekend). Live, Woodbury’s cursory physical shorthand made me imagine all the characters as versions of herself, an intriguing effect but not enough to carry the two full hours of each performance. But What Ever is a stunning radio piece thanks to Woodbury’s vocal range.

The best moments in the theater are Woodbury’s ecstatic, splendidly excessive riffs on modern life. These graceful, unrestrained flights of fancy make the story’s more conventional moments seem truncated by an editor’s heavy hand. I felt I was glimpsing the energy of weekly experimentation as Woodbury’s magically cluttered language and well-timed pauses gave way to rapid-fire metaphors and detailed overlapping stories. In one plot twist, the quasi-Shakespearean teen poet Clove is rescued from a drugged-out walk into the sea by the ghost of Kurt Cobain; she comes to naked and shivering in a field of brussels sprouts covered with an unseasonal frost. There she meets a Mexican farmworker, who just previously shared a letter to his wife, writing with gentle poetry about the cold, the haunted field (Cobain), and his prayers for his cousin, also illegal and coughing up blood, who’s gotten a job making salads in a restaurant. The best scenes are full of such contrast and whimsy, making urban legends come alive and revealing hidden lives.

The adult characters form an ambiguous, ironic counterpoint to the trio of teenagers, who are unfazed by the complexities of the world they hitch through. Very believable, the three are also increasingly unsympathetic. Clove, her “fairest consort” Sable, and their would-be lover Skeeter are the primary narrators of What Ever; their valley-child vocabulary gives the play its title. Strong characters, they’re also wearing, speaking in a code at once intellectual, metaphoric, and idiotic, amusing but reminiscent of the worst postmodern academic jargon. Yet Woodbury’s rave talk in iambic pentameter and long, fantastical incantations do reveal the literary heights possible in this pop-culture argot. When these characters aren’t “agged to the gills” or admonishing one another about “waxing Jason Priestley,” they’re “most pious and melancholic” or mourning their “solitudinated” state. But after eight acts, Woodbury’s older, more interesting creations seem better candidates for the role of postmodern cultural questers.

The strongest character is Violet, a hard-drinking elderly bohemian with a poodle named Balzac and a propensity for telling long, fascinating stories about her privileged, complicated life. She wanders through the story like some boozy Tiresias, occasionally proving that the kids’ seemingly fabulous adventures are nothing next to her own. Clearly Woodbury loves Violet: she gives the character a truly distinctive posture and facial expression to match her husky Ruth Gordon voice. And unlike the one-note, braying Bushie, Violet has a voice that’s richly varied.

For Violet, every event has a reason, and every reason is a story. She divorced her first husband because she was willing to shoot a deer in the heart and he was not. She and Balzac escort women seeking abortions through a line of protesters because of her two illegal abortions, described in sardonic and chilling detail as she waits for the poor dog to recover from the gunshot wound that saved a clinic doctor from death. She tells her maid Cora about her years living in an artists’ colony, where she imagined a room that would be as beautiful as jazz, “all long, dark blue plumes–one has to take off one’s clothes and walk nude through it.” We travel with Violet to the beach in the final scene, where she gets the last word. But she’s only a flash in the kaleidoscope.

I wanted more of the open-ended stories Woodbury made so real: the ex-corporate midlife crisis of the hapless Paul Folsom and his wife Polly, the intriguing minor characters dropped unceremoniously–not only Polly’s black lover Ruben but the migrant workers who reappear throughout. I wanted their voices to frame the kids’ soap opera and pop poetizing instead of the other way around. Yet each act of What Ever is another 20, 30, 60 stories, and each evening really does stand on its own. So audiences can orchestrate their experience, omitting or including Woodbury’s neatly packaged happy ending.

Her best writing and performance all come from a sense of the world’s dangerous, unrelenting overlap of goofiness and tragedy, happy endings and hypocrisy. Once a story captivated me in What Ever, I was never taken where I thought I was going. In fact I went nowhere half the time and usually liked that part the best. With its yuppie murderers, Buddhist parenting techniques, ex-con uncles, psychic travel, tourist terrorism, and onstage orgasms, What Ever is amazing despite or perhaps because of its flaws, an exhausting four-day experience I wouldn’t have missed for anything.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): What Ever (An American Odyssey in 8 Acts) uncredited theater still.