ACCORDING TO INTERMEDIA ARTS, ITS 2008 NAKED STAGES series draws on the artists personal journeys of finding, nurturing, and celebrating their authenticity. And, in fact, the first installment presented a few weekends ago at the art center delivered two highlyalmost painfully personal new works.
The first and, for my money, the strongest of these solo performances was This Here Now, a movement piece by the experimental artist Byrd Shuler. It starts unexpectedly, when Shuler rises from the front row of audience seats. She turns. She stammers. She bites her nails. She stares over the audience, looking wide-eyed and frightened. She returns to her seat and rises again. And again. OK, get it together, she says to herself. All through this display of tentativeness, she mutters words of encouragement under her breath. Its as if shes trying to summon the strength to confront her audienceof course, the average audience member can completely relate with such fears.
At first, Shuler is dressed in a pair of gray, flat-front business casual slacks. As with so many pants these days, they hang heavy with symbolism. Shuler retires backstage on several occasions, only to reemerge without them. In their place: a pair of boxy Superman Underoos.
The briefs turn out to be magic, of course: so long as shes dressed in these, and only these, she doesnt have to bother with talking or self-critique. Instead, she gets to hum a cheerful tune. She does cartwheels. She goes on a pants-less picnic, bites into an apple, and lets the juices streak down her chin. Her hesitation and self-consciousness have gone the way of her respectable trousers.
With her pants on she is, at first anyway, far more reserved. But of course, the two selves, over time, bleed into each otherand thats where the bulk of Shulers fascinating, subtle, and non-linear self-examination resides. Eventually, as the performance evolves, Shulers character begins to exhibit the impetuous, wild traits of her less clad persona, even when fully clothed.
Here's what I like best about this piece: Shuler deftly captures the impulse behind small moments of personal heroismthose times when, for all our flaws, we're able to get knee-deep in doing something bold, fully cognizant of our own ridiculousness and in spite of our self-consciousness. And yet, it's clear that theres danger inherent in losing sight of the more cautious side of ones self during these outbursts of heedlessness. Thanks in large part to the quick-pacing and insightful, detail-oriented direction of Maren Ward (best known for her work with Bedlam Theatre) Shulers piece beautifully enacts the intricacies and ambiguities lurking behind these searching ideas.
Shuler deftly captures these small moments of personal heroismtimes when, for all our flaws, we're able to get knee-deep in doing something bold, fully cognizant of our own ridiculousness and in spite of our self-consciousness.
The evenings second piecea personal narrative-driven performance, Layer(s) by storyteller Beverly Cottmanwas also entertaining. However, it lacked the seamlessness that made Shulers meditation so remarkable.
Just like a family tree, Layer(s) is comprised of many parts: The strongest of these elements is a series of straight-talking tributes to the Edwards girls of Kansas City, Cottmans mother and three aunts. From the glamorous Aunt Bea, the chiseled and strikingly gorgeous Aunt Pat, the kind but disciplinarian Aunt Charlene, and Cottmans own worldly mother Patriciatheres great pleasure in hearing stories about these strong, self-assured African-American women. A series of vintage photographs projected onstagea montage/homage to the stylish, mid-century lives of Cottmans ancestorsonly adds to the warmth and intimacy of the audience experience.
Whats more, when Cottman talks about her female forebears her voice is warm, buttery. The listening feels very intimate, as if shes talking friend-to-friend or even blood-to-blood. On the other hand, the Edwards Sisters stories are peppered with more abstracted passages (about blackbirds, about heritages); in the telling of these, Cottman reverts to the breathy, affected conventions of spoken word. As a result, the show suffers some disconnect between its split personalities.
Cottman is only trying to get at the root of her creative impulses, but the cross-discipline approach of her performance yields uneven results. She keeps a dark (and unremarkable) mixed-media canvas at the corner of the stage. After telling a story about Aunt Beas fabulous collection of furs or her mothers cross-country sojourn to San Francisco, on occasion, she ambles over to weave the canvas with a ribbon or to draw a spiral flourish. Whats the point? From the show's narrative, it seems that the Edwards Sisters favored domestic artscooking, sewing, and being fabulouscame to inspire in Cottman a rich inner and creative life. I like the way she conveys the idea that big, even avant-garde ideas almost always sprout from earthier, humbler beginnings. However, in this instance, the charm and authenticity of her well-illustrated ancestry outshines the self-consciously poetic chanting and offbeat art-making that Cottman uses to define her present existence. When it comes to this show, nothing is so beguiling as the Edwards Sisters! These other flourishes seem like unnecessary attempts to gild the lily, just a distraction from the main event.
So concluded the first weekend of this year's Naked Stages performances; I'd encourage you to see a bit of this annual adventure in theater for yourself. You can catch the second and final line-up of this year's Naked Stages shows November 6-8: May Lee-Yang's The Child's House and Too Real 2B Free by Juma B. Essie.
About the writer: Christy DeSmith is a former editor at The Rake. She is also a freelance theater critic and was recently named an affiliated writer for 2007-08 by the Theatre Communications Group and American Theatre magazine.