Sunday, November 2, 2008

Split Britches "Miss America"

Now through November 8, The Theatre Offensive presents the 17th Annual Out on the Edge Queer Theatre Festival featuring performance art and artists rarely seen on Boston-area stages. This festival is certainly one of Boston's most daring and accomplished enterprises turning the spotlight to artists whose work defies definition, challenges convention, and doesn't shy away from political performance and performative politics. The line-up for this year's festival includes choreographer David Parker and the Bang Group's Nut/Cracked, the drag-tastic Varla Jean Merman Loves a Foreign Tongue, Wake the F**K Up America starring The Kinsey Sicks, and Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver's Miss America.

Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver, which comprise two-thirds of the company, Split Britches, have risen to cult celebrity status in theatre, performance, and queer studies departments across the country. Their origination of the roles in Holly Hughes' butch/femme exploration Dress Suits to Hire earned Shaw an OBIE Award in 1987. Their original work (created with Bloolips), Belle Reprieve, a reverse-gender version of Streetcar Named Desire, has been widely anthologized and studied as an example of "lesbian performance and of the contemporary critique of gender politics*." Co-founders of NYC's WOW (Women's One World) Cafe, these artists are accomplished veterans and passionate in their political performances.

Their current work, Miss America, continues their legacy of exploring feminism, exploiting the butch/femme aesthetic, scrutinizing American history and politics, and challenging the representation of women on stage. However, there is a subtext to the performance representative in the aging female body on stage. Throughout the performance, their didactic message is both overshadowed and complimented by the aging bodies of the performers and all of the inherent (im)perfections. In performance art, the medium is the body. Therefore, the status of the body must be considered as both content and form.

The performance begins with Weaver weaving her way through the audience wearing a full-lenth fur coat, high heels, black bob wig, heavy make-up, and plastic tiara. She carries around her neck a camera and shoots pictures of members of the audience with the repeated phrase, "You never told me..." As we watch, assist, and participate in her maneuvering through the audience, Shaw sits on a park bench stage left staring at two capsized refrigerators, an industrial fan, and a slideshow screen, which comprises the set. By the time she has reached the stage, Weaver has commented upon memory, loss, ecological disaster, personal relationships, denial, et al. The caution with which she steps over chairs and relies upon assistance from the audience brings us into a compassionate cooperation with the performance.

Upon reaching the stage, the performance begins. Shaw assumes the position of a body struck by a vehicle with one shoe off - her body prostrate on the ground. Weaver takes pictures of her posture and questions her about her situation from the audience while carrying on a dialogue with this assumed body. The double entendre of the title need not be more obvious; unfortunately, the dialogue, at times, will be.

As a central theme to the work, Weaver stands in front of the slideshow screen and delivers a monologue reminiscent of television reporters documenting Hurricane Wilma. However, the connotations in the audience's mind is Hurricane Katrina which is skewered for political negligence and an apathy towards the American people.

Another theme of the work is the Miss America contest. Both performers state that they have dreamed of being named Miss America. However, this device is quickly subverted through the syntax of missing America. Weaver, in her fur, heels, and tiara, remembers an America where you could see the U.S.A. in a chevrolet, reminiscing the mainfest destiny of 1950s America. While Shaw stands on a capsized refrigerator telling us her childhood dreams of being Miss America.

The work of Weaver and Shaw defies cursory criticism as it is filled with images, words, dialogues, jokes, dances, and much more. It is impossible to define, but a medium they have been exploring for twenty years. Some audiences, familiar with their work, feel that they have not progressed in twenty years and wonder if their conventions (tap dancing, plastic bags, nudity) still resonate or are as powerful as they once were. However, I must return to the image of the aging body of the performers and the delicate grace and caution with which they moved through the space. If, as Brooks tells us, theatre can happen in an empty space with another watching - the choice of whose body (and thereby whose story) is displayed is central to the message. I thought Miss America was a beautiful work that continues - as these two performers have been doing for twenty years - to challenge the medium of theatre and audiences.

*Worthen, W.B. ed. "Introduction to Belle Reprieve." The Harcourt Brace Anthology of Drama. 2nd ed. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace, 1996.

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