at Double Door, through November 30

The Baubo Performance Project, as their program informs us, is named for the “Greek Goddess of Laughter from Sorrow.” As they tell the story, “Demeter was sitting beside the River of Sorrow crying for her daughter, Persephone. . . . From behind a tree, Baubo watched Demeter for awhile and then emerged, smiling. ‘What have you to cry for? See how the sun shines on the water?’ Unconvinced, Demeter continued to weep. So Baubo said, ‘I know what will make you smile.’ Baubo lifted up her skirt and showed Demeter the smile of her Vulva. And Demeter, the Goddess of Fertility . . . laughed.”

I love this story. First, it reminds me that comedy is the child of sorrow and loss. Second, there is nothing more mysterious, and hence nothing funnier, than our own bodies. And third, the end of the story runs counter to all my cultural expectations about the proper time to mention the vulva–either not at all, or in a strictly sexual, if not pornographic, context. Just reading it before the show shook me a bit out of my dogmatic slumber.

But sadly, the women who make up the Baubo Performance Project never quite live up to the honest, radical, Karen Finley-esque power of Baubo’s story. In fact, their pieces are remarkably reserved, even chaste. Nothing here even approaches the moment in another current all-female show, Sweat Dreams, when Pamela Webster openly jokes about the way her raging hormones during pregnancy enlarged her clitoris so much her little boy asked her about her “penis.” She adds that no one told her that when she lactated, her milk would flow like the Mississippi at the merest thought of her baby or even at the sound of another baby crying.

One wonders if, having adopted Baubo as their patron goddess, the Baubo Performance Project didn’t back away from her in fear. Miss Manners would hardly approve of her, and I can imagine guys in their early 20s being freaked out by women who adopted a Baubo-like frankness about their bodies. Even the group’s publicity photo–five women in wedding dresses and white gloves trying to climb a chain-link fence–is considerably less charged than the picture reproduced on their poster: an image of a girl in a mask lifting her dress Baubo-style. That retreat is a shame, because our society is already flooded with images of half-bold, half-timid Uma Thurman-, Liz Phair-, Winona Ryder-style waif / grrrls.

When sex is alluded to at all in this show it’s veiled in romantic or comic bits about relationships. Or, in the last moody piece of the evening, “Hide and Seek Her (An Exorcism in Progress),” sexuality is sublimated in a wonderful dancelike performance in which Martha Donovan, Marianne Kim, and Sara Kraft move in front of a slide of an empty corridor, speaking volumes about loneliness and desolation with gestures alone.

Baubo’s Festival of New Work is structured like a revue: nine performances are separated by blackouts, with no attempt to connect them or make them into a whole. This style is tailor-made for a show at a Wicker Park club that’s primarily known as a rock venue. A good 50 percent of the audience wandered in during the performance–and stayed to the end.

Considering the venue, the show is remarkably quiet and subtle: if you don’t pay attention, you’ll miss the messages behind these sweet, sometimes precious, sometimes frustratingly indirect pieces. In part I think this oblique quality is due to the writers’, choreographers’, and performers’ youth: all but the best works lack the self-knowledge and authority that come with experience. Many of the ideas aren’t fully fleshed out, and a few pieces even seem out-and-out imitations of other people’s work. Lee Anne Schmitt’s “Baby’s Breath,” for example, contains moments that could have come directly from a Mary Zimmerman piece: a woman in a blindfold kneels while other women move mysteriously about the stage dressed in cocktail dresses.

Still, there are moments of unmistakable originality. Particularly wonderful is the way Baubo mixes the comic and the sublime without cheapening either, especially in Jill Miller’s four performance blackouts: “Jane’s in a Rage: A Demon-Child Breaking,” “Jane Part 2: Wirerimglassesgirl,” “Jane Epilogue: Hag Rap(e),” and “Jane Part 4: Ramrod.” Each piece explores such serious topics as anger, envy, and what is and is not performance, yet contains just enough comedy to ground the material and keep it from becoming pretentious. Similarly, Marianne Kim’s marvelous movement piece, “None But a Pretty Smile,” features both lots of mysterious and beautiful movement and a parody rap song with the refrain “I want a bald boyfriend.”

Even if Sara Kraft’s moody “Hide and Seek Her” were the only decent piece on the bill–and it’s not–it alone would give me reason to expect great things from this troupe. Provided, of course, they listen a little more closely to their patron goddess.