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Split Britches' LAST GASP at LaMama

Re-mounting what had been a virtual, pandemic piece in early 2020 (LAST GASP, WFH) filmed in an abandoned house in London, as a live show for late 2022 (LAST GASP: A RECALIBRATION) at La Mama in October, Split Britches (Lois Weaver, Peggy Shaw and collaborators) this transition/translation retained just the right amount of roughness and lived-in-ness. The integration and reframing of the original media recordings of the performers retained their mediated solution to isolation while opening up into liveness; this is what we can do, right now, and what an audience needs to see. We have crawled out of a pandemic and into the theatre again, baggage not as far behind as we may wish.

The emotional subtlety of the script, leavened with humor and simple yet graphic use of the deep space of LaMama, used “theatre” in many ways; as metaphor, as frame, as remembrance, as career and profession. The dynamic, restrained and stark use of video of the performers, framed by furniture and curtains, sustained Peggy as virtual ghost yet her presence remained concrete, alive. The interplay between the two performers, one live in front of us and the other coming to us from somewhere; is she behind a curtain, backstage? kept the action intricate, intimate and fully integrated into the dramatic action. We hear Lois feeding Peggy her lines, but are unsure if this is recorded or happening right now. The simultaneity of what is revealed and concealed constructs an emotional fabric of actual life, stitched in front of us. Do we want to feel all that this implies, now that we are live and together in a theatre?

Lois has developed a rhythm and assurance in her performing persona that folds us into her thinking and compositional process, a generosity built on experience; this process works, stick with me. Her performance makes me believe once again in the effectiveness of “performance” over “acting.” Peggy’s post-stroke hesitance, and her clearly stated resistance to performing, merges harmonically with Lois’ assurance, as we feel the composition being created through a confident discarding of traditional story structure; this is how masterful performers put us up on the narrative high wire with them. You want to see our life; here is the way we create it. There are sections when the abstract movement (Morgan Thorson did the choreography) suggest a performer graphically arranging thoughts and words; I thought briefly of Tom Cruise in MINORITY REPORT, much more literal (and possibly the only time Lois will be compared to Cruise). There’s a sense of Lois directing, conducting, deciding to pursue something and/or drop the subject (sometimes literally when she overturns a table or yanks a screen off its hanger). We feel delight, disappointment, despair and just the right amount of distance.

Vivian Stoll’s sound and music design provocatively provides just enough to dynamically fill in some spaces while prodding memory; we hear snatches of songs that are familiar, and then realize (perhaps) the samples are from the same Carley Simon song, “You’re so Vain.” Balancing the live and not-so-live is tricky, and Stoll gives it just enough texture so that we feel the seams. As Lois says at one point, she likes to hear the clicks and scratches in LP’s. Odd that analog recording reminds us of what makes liveness so human.

The emotional tone of this work is never forced, allowing us to discover, along with Lois, the depth beneath the surface; Peggy is not in the room and yet she is. This rising dramatic action exposes itself when Peggy finally appears in-person. There is no star’s entrance here, more of a “what took you so long?” The personal/professional tensions of these two spills out in a dialogue of movement and questions that goes deep into the agreements and conflicts necessary to make their work over the years. So much is condensed into an intense few minutes. Towards the end, I’m tearing up, both knowing why and not knowing, dying and feeling more alive simultaneously. The lives, and eventual deaths, of these two performer becomes mine.

(Holly Hughes also posted about this performance on FaceBook; I write this with her insightful analysis in my head).

Jeff McMahon November 1, 2022

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