B y M a r i W a d s w o r t h
A FUNNY THING happened on the way to the theater. No, really. I got lost. Two women singled me out at the corner of University Boulevard and Fifth Avenue. "We're looking for the Historic Y Theater," one says, tickets in hand. So am I. I unhelpfully tell them I think it's actually on Fifth Street, downtown by the Holsclaw Family YMCA, even though I know as I say it that this is geographically impossible. We are, of course, right in front of the towering structure as we have this hurried conversation five minutes before curtain.
We part in opposite directions, and I get the long end of the wishbone...I find the theater directly behind me, and, unable to see the two women anywhere in the fading light, I hurry inside to find a seat of my own as nine women settle themselves comfortably around a set that looks like a cross between a cluttered attic and well-worn living room, and break casually into the chorus:
"I know an old woman who swallowed a fly/I don't know why/She swallowed a fly/Perhaps she'll die."
Two women--performance artists, I will henceforth think of them--stand center stage and interpret the song in American Sign Language. I am going to like this, I think.
After "the woman who swallowed a horse" (she died, of course), we're treated to a slide show of grandmothers, mothers and aunts of the cast, each with a one-liner to summarize her life: "My mother was a magician," intones Jan O'Dell, "...she could love me without even touching me." The projector clicks.
"That's my Great Aunt Lily," says Cindy Meier, "there in the middle with the blue hair. I think she was a lesbian." The audience giggles. Click.
"That's my mom," Kim Lowry says with an extra-long look at the black-and-white image of a young woman in full marching-band regalia, trumpet in hand. She's either forgotten her line, or suddenly finds her impossible to explain. We all burst out laughing. I'm really going to like this.
What the cast of Bloodhut has done with its fourth production, I Know An Old Woman, is to recreate their lives on stage, deciding for themselves which parts are important. Such self-indulgent writing is risky. Women, telling about their lives. Is that Art? Or is it some sappy, psychotherapeutic lesbian thing? Women, frankly telling the intimate details of their divorces, their hysterectomies, their cancers, their sexuality, their childhood games, their aging bodies...that is a dangerous thing. Because until quite recently, women just haven't done that, let alone publicly. And Lord knows what might happen if it catches on...we might learn something new. Yes, if you're still wondering, this is unequivocally Art.
I Know An Old Woman is highly personal, which is fortunate. Because you couldn't write this play. You'd have to live it. And it would take nine lives, as it were, to tell it. These nine lives, and countless others that have touched them, have been polished and smoothed by the writers' retelling, in the manner a rock hound turns a common stone into a gem by constantly turning it over, scrubbing and tumbling it around with other rocks. This is a collaborative work that succeeds against formidable obstacles--such as becoming mired in detail, overwhelmed by emotion or interrupted by artistic differences--by remaining unfailingly honest and genuinely inspired.
The production never flags, from the conversational introduction to an improvisation of "living dolls," on an emotional journey through a mother's advancing cancer to an imaginative, interpretive dance piece with a grandmother's petticoat. A thread of personal narrative binds it all together, carrying us along from 1940, before many of the cast members were born, to 1995, the year Jan O'Dell turned 60 and found out "I had no idea life could be like this."
The message of Art as therapy isn't lost, as in "Parts," where Annette Hillman turns a frightening operation into a humorous sketch by communicating through dolls. Everything is well-thought out, from rag-doll Annette, pliant and resigned with a frozen grin, to Doctor Ken-doll, a rigid, plastic authority reducing Annette's "parts" to inanimate objects on an ironing board operating table.
The Bloodhut women have produced an empowering, poignant glimpse into life as the continuum of experience, in which "perhaps she'll die" becomes a question we are ultimately left to decide for ourselves. I hope those women on the street find their way back to the theater. And I hope you'll go along with them. There aren't any mistakes in this production...the theater is right where they said it would be, the performances nearly flawless and the stories, as promised, belong to everyone.
I Know An Old Woman continues with performances at 8 p.m. through August 13 at the Historic Y Theater, 738 N. Fifth Ave. Tickets are $8 in advance from Antigone Books and Fit to Be Tried, $9 at the door. Call 326-7354 for reservations and information. Bloodhut Productions offers monthly Saturday workshops for men and women interested in developing personal material through a series of movement, sound, improvisation and writing exercises. Call Cindy at 326-7354 for information.
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