Split Britches at Randolph Street Gallery

For a performer to be smart, funny, and talented is rare. Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver, of the New York-based theater company Split Britches, are all of that and then some. They’re not smart but brilliant, not funny but hysterical, not talented but virtuosic.

Their clever, ridiculously campy yet touchingly sincere Anniversary Waltz is ingeniously conceived and expertly articulated, as much a giddily destabilizing examination of traditional gender roles and lesbian sexuality as an exuberant send-up of low-budget theatrical shtick.

Shaw and Weaver have been lovers and colleagues for ten years, and Anniversary Waltz is fundamentally a celebration of their relationship. Written by them and Deb Margolin, the third member of Split Britches, it begins with Shaw and Weaver standing atop a buffet table–the only set piece–Weaver in poufy hair and ruffles, a country darlin’, and Shaw in a kind of sequined, boxy, quasi-military cowboy’s tux. Looking like a couple of bizarre wedding-cake decorations, they lip-synch Tammy Wynette and George Jones’s “We’ll Build a World Together,” Weaver all forced sentimentality and Shaw all macho understatement. They turn to face each other, pivoting clumsily like mechanical targets in a shooting gallery. Clearly they are on display, and will cling to each other with all the affection they can possibly muster. It’s their anniversary, after all.

Once the song ends, this delightfully artificial couple step off the table and address us directly and honestly, though at the same time they’re distanced from us by their ridiculous outfits and personas. They explain that in honor of their anniversary they have thrown their own “surprise party,” to which we’ve all been invited. They tell us how they met in Berlin in 1979 when they were separately on tour, and how the imposing Shaw forced the rather diminutive Weaver to admit her lesbianism during an “intimate” dinner for 40. Through it all, Weaver tries to remain bubbly and spunky, occasionally flipping her bleached blond hair, while Shaw continually finishes Weaver’s sentences for her.

This opening scene neatly introduces the piece’s dominant theme. Clearly Anniversary Waltz is candid and autobiographical, yet we see that autobiography through imposed, exaggerated gender roles. There is no such thing as a “natural” persona here; instead the women must be either butch or femme, male or female, masculine or feminine. These seem the only options open to them, and perhaps to us as audience members–how else can we “read” characters except as male or female, and what other terms can I use as a critic to communicate what I experienced? Yet at the same time, Shaw and Weaver point out the limitations of these labels, constantly turning our expectations on their heads. Referring to her early work with Spiderwoman Theatre, Weaver says, in a perfect imitation of a southern PTA mother, “At that time, we feminists were very busy trying to deconstruct the feminine image.” Just when we think we “understand” a persona, she turns into something else.

The piece is full of such transformations, so that all of the signs that we usually use to understand someone–dress, manner, speech, gender–can no longer be trusted. Shaw undergoes a miraculous transformation right before our eyes when she removes her cowboy tux and dons a purple satin bustier and elbow-length gloves. She goes from a quiet, staid “man”–though in that costume she’s called “Peggy” and “a lesbian”–to an unpredictable, “dangerous” vamp, hissing to the audience, “Do you want to see my legs? I don’t think you have enough money to see a good lesbian mother’s legs.” Then she tosses her head back and bursts into maniacal laughter. We are never able to say for certain who these women “really” are.

Yet somehow an exceptional honesty shines through all this confusion. It becomes clear that these women are not hiding behind disguises but are putting into high relief the fictions our culture uses to view gender and lesbian sexuality. And since they acknowledge and even exaggerate these cultural lenses, we simultaneously see through them and around them. Shaw and Weaver point out that there are many ways in which we can view this lesbian couple, and in which they can view themselves, and that the pieces of this mosaic don’t contradict but complement one another. Their great strength as lesbians in a male-dominated, heterosexist culture–and by extension as performers–is their ability to move within a system that seeks to confine them. Since they have broken what is perhaps our biggest cultural taboo and are no longer “women” as our patriarchal system defines them, they are empowered to borrow bits and pieces of gender stereotypes and to recombine them in ways that are bracingly honest and personal.

Similarly, the piece itself is a refreshing, unique recombination of recognizable styles. All of the elements are familiar, especially to a gay audience–cross-dressing, gender confusion, campy lip-synching, even the pink lame backdrop–but the angle is always fresh. One sidesplitting scene has Shaw, in an orange gown and a plastic smile, manipulating Weaver, in a gray pin-striped suit, as if she were a ventriloquist’s dummy. While Barbra Streisand and Nell Diamond sing “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” Shaw and her dummy perform a “duet.” Yet Shaw is such a bad ventriloquist that, even though the singing is prerecorded, you can see her lips move during the dummy’s solos.

The writing is sharp throughout, and these two performers make the most of their material with expert timing and subtle acting. In a wonderfully ironic way, the women seem to have put themselves in a really bad show. Expounding upon her love for Shaw, Weaver rhapsodizes, “Her voice is like the sound of a radiator coming on in winter.” After an appropriate pause she concludes, “Comforting but loud.” The several intentionally awful musical production numbers, staged with a keen eye for parody and physical humor by Stormy Brandenberger, are singularly hysterical.

By the time Anniversary Waltz was nearing its end, I realized that I’d been physically stirred by it, deeply moved on a sensual as well as an intellectual level. Shaw says at one point, “I want the truth to be sexy,” and in this piece it is–though I would be hard-pressed to explain what I mean by “truth.” As exaggerated and theatrical as this work is, the fuel that drives it, and that is present at every moment, is Shaw’s and Weaver’s love for each other and its expression in performance. By the end, I felt as if I had been at the anniversary party of two of my dearest friends, and I was touched. During their final embrace, as they lip-synched to Tammy and George, asking each other to “build a world safe together,” I knew that they were doing just that.

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