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Theater critic Christy DeSmith reflects on the first weekend's Naked Stages 2008 offerings which included deep thoughts, family descent, and a depantsing! The second and final lineup of performances is on stage November 6-8.
By Christy DeSmith
November 3, 2008

Beverly Cottman ([i]Layer(s)[/i])

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 highly—almost 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. It’s as if she’s trying to summon the strength to confront her audience—of 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 she’s dressed in these, and only these, she doesn’t 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 other—and that’s where the bulk of Shuler’s fascinating, subtle, and non-linear self-examination resides. Eventually, as the performance evolves, Shuler’s 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 heroism—those 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 there’s danger inherent in losing sight of the more cautious side of one’s 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) Shuler’s piece beautifully enacts the intricacies and ambiguities lurking behind these searching ideas.

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Shuler deftly captures these small moments of personal heroism—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.
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The evening’s second piece—a personal narrative-driven performance, Layer(s) by storyteller Beverly Cottman—was also entertaining. However, it lacked the seamlessness that made Shuler’s 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,” Cottman’s mother and three aunts. From the glamorous Aunt Bea, the chiseled and strikingly gorgeous Aunt Pat, the kind but disciplinarian Aunt Charlene, and Cottman’s own worldly mother Patricia—there’s great pleasure in hearing stories about these strong, self-assured African-American women. A series of vintage photographs projected onstage—a montage/homage to the stylish, mid-century lives of Cottman’s ancestors—only adds to the warmth and intimacy of the audience experience.

What’s more, when Cottman talks about her female forebears her voice is warm, buttery. The listening feels very intimate, as if she’s talking friend-to-friend or even blood-to-blood. On the other hand, the Edwards Sister’s 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 Bea’s fabulous collection of furs or her mother’s cross-country sojourn to San Francisco, on occasion, she ambles over to weave the canvas with a ribbon or to draw a spiral flourish. What’s the point? From the show's narrative, it seems that the Edwards Sisters’ favored domestic arts—cooking, sewing, and being fabulous—came 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.

Related Events:

What: Naked Stages 2008 presents May Lee-Yang's The Child's House and Too Real 2B Free by Juma B. Essie
Where: Intermedia Arts, Minneapolis, MN
When: November 6-8
Tickets: $12 (some discounts available)

MN Artists