Marcia Wilkie

at Live Bait Theater, through September 4

Marcia Wilkie is so charming she can do anything she wants–like a show that’s both bigger and smaller than it seems, and that straddles the line between theater and performance without pretension. A writer and performer whose previous efforts, Hers and Duck Duck Goose, showcased a rare sweetness and even rarer talent for story telling, Wilkie reaps the lessons of those shows for a full harvest in This Girl I Knew, currently playing late nights at Live Bait Theater.

Anyone who’s caught Wilkie in group shows like Big Goddess Pow Wow or at cabaret venues like HotHouse and the Blue Rider may already know some of the six pieces included here, but that familiarity will only enrich the experience. She’s the kind of performer who may not jump out at you the first time you see her–she’s not flashy or bizarre–but she is so real and refreshing that each subsequent encounter with her work sheds more and more light on it, until you realize she’s one of the brightest stars on the local performance/cabaret scene.

Consider Wilkie’s approach in “Caused by Friction,” an aching tale about her relationship with her sister. She’s been trying this piece out all over town for a couple of months, a strategy that’s made all the difference for this show. In This Girl I Knew the piece is still poignant but now imbued with the performer’s certainty. Confident about every technical matter from transitions to pacing, Wilkie is free to explore the emotional depths and nuances of her connection to her sister–a nexus she finds undeniable and yet totally mysterious.

“Caused by Friction” is in many ways essential Wilkie: her sister is certainly unlikable, yet Wilkie gives us no choice but to be sympathetic to her. Like Wilkie, we’re not quite sure why we feel the way we do; we don’t really believe her sister will ever get it together; but we feel the lump in our throat and recognize that whatever her sister’s self-destructive actions, our shame is not for her but for ourselves, for our own impotence and indifference. This is powerful stuff: quiet, subtle, but powerful indeed.

Then there’s “Vicky,” a really black tale that on the surface seems benign. Here Wilkie–who has an incredible memory for the brand name of every toy she ever encountered as a kid–meets up with another unlikable character, a fat kid whose parents try to offset her social undesirability by buying her everything. The story’s funny, it’s odd, but it’s also tragic. Wilkie recognizes her own childhood participation in Vicky’s damnation and doesn’t spare her younger self from indictment.

Yet the tragedy that this is really about–ultimately not so much Vicky’s role in the childhood community but rather the values that first cause that community to ostracize her, then create her role–comes almost a beat behind the story’s familiar veneer of kids at play and in awe of things. In this way Wilkie makes the moral quandary much more individual, much more private; as we’re beginning to realize what she’s just dropped on our plate, she already seems to have moved on to the next course. (Still, you get the feeling she’s there, just pretending to have moved on so we won’t feel too embarrassed about our feelings.)

Of the pieces that were new to me, “Any Connections,” a witty look at first love, was the most impressive. Although the story and some of Wilkie’s techniques eventually became predictable, this wasn’t particularly bothersome–one of the embarrassing things about first love is how predictable it is. And with her amazing combination of earnestness and dark humor, Wilkie keeps things humming through all the familiar parts right up until the less predictable conclusion.

Though “Any Connections” is a lesbian story, it’s hilariously universal. Perhaps only a lesbian will really appreciate a line like “I can’t compete with a boy” (uttered when Wilkie discovers her lover has taken up with the opposite sex), but anyone can understand and laugh at Wilkie’s chagrin when, recovered from her heartache, she wonders what the hell she saw in her lover in the first place.

Not every piece here has the same resonance. The first, “Now, as an Adult,” may be a bit too gimmicky; the last, “When the Floor Drops Away,” is undercut by its overblown final moment.

Classifying This Girl I Knew is something of a challenge. As in most performance of late, Wilkie speaks from what seems like her own experience. And she’s definitely not acting. Yet she has a director (Jeff Ginsberg), and the piece moves in a very conventional theatrical way. She may seem to be addressing the audience, but the fourth wall is pretty much there, with the exception of perhaps one or two brief moments.

Genre aside, though, Wilkie’s writing shines. There are no loose ends here, no promises unkept. Every single piece offers a tight, circular journey. Sometimes a piece may seem too light, but then we find the small treasure she’s embedded in it; other times it may seem as though we’re about to go off the deep end, then Wilkie pulls us back and winks. Every piece demonstrates what everybody who’s been watching Wilkie in the last year or so already knows: she just gets better and better.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Debra Steward.