New York

“Two Titled”

“Two Titled” was the moniker for a twin bill of performance playlets, Bissie at the Baths and Counter Angel, presented by the Los Angeles group, Pop-Up Productions. Each was a monologue for a female writer/performer in a life-size setting modeled after the pop-up scenery of children’s books; the cartoonlike qualities of these environments with figures unavoidably also referred to Red Grooms and Roy Lichtenstein. The Pop-Up versions successfully straddled the sculpture/set fence, being quirky and detailed enough to be interesting in themselves, and theatrically specific enough to work as performance settings. (The production design credit went to A.W.O.L.—Peter Jamison and Bo Welch.)

In Bissie Joan Hotchkis appeared as a middle-aged divorcée in search of group therapy enlightenment in a cardboard California backyard. “Bissie” roams among cutouts of “types”—a young blonde nymphet, a fat friend, a cool black man—addressing the figures in a one-way conversation about prime Californian topics: diet, divorce, suburban absurdities, body images—all of which relate to her most important subject: herself. As performed by Hotchkis, an accomplished television and stage actress, Bissie was slight, sitcom stuff, from its basic premise (Bissie as a wondering Alice in pseudo-therapyland) to Hotchkis’ impeccable TV-comedy timing in her pauses and one-liner deliveries. Bissie got plenty of laughs from a New York audience for whom its lightweight clichés served less as a social satire on pop psychology than as an out-and-out laugh at the stereotypical California state of mind—or lack of mind, as that cliché goes.

Counter Angel takes place in a Western truck-stop café; although in the main as cartoonlike as the set for Bissie, this environment closes the distance between real objects and reproductions with its illuminated truck-on-black-velvet paintings, doodad clocks, junk trucker merchandise, and patriotic Americana—in short, it is almost the real thing. So is Jo Harvey Allen’s “Ruby Kay,” the primordial waitress, as she holds court with her nonstop, homegrown ruminations on life, marriage, death, and the awful fate of being a woman who has to love men, especially truckers. With her flat-footed descriptions of pure tragedy (“He was killed by a Mexican just 45 minutes before he got off work”), her catty opinionizing (“She’s fun in a crowd”), and her constant salty punctuation (“Shee-it”), Ruby Kay regaled the New Museum urbanites with the gospel according to the female heart of the country.

Like her set, Allen’s performance was more of a performance than Hotchkis’, and blurring the border between herself and Ruby Kay made for some hilarious spontaneity: Allen belched in the middle of singing a C and W ballad, stuffed her mouth with cream pie while continuing to chatter, and generally ad-libbed with both dialogue and timing to give the whole performance an air of surprise. As always, this approach also resulted in a jerky rhythm as Ruby Kay lost her way and her narrative periodically stumbled, spluttered, rambled, and lost steam. Similarly, Allen made both mundane uses of her set—much of the time she simply poured coffee—and unexpected choices: addressing some live customers seated near the cutout ones, or hitting the john offstage to a recorded flush while rattling on. And Ruby Kay’s monologue was equally mixed in its messages; her zigzag feminism included doses of homemade independence and self-victimization, her “earnest” statements seemed equal parts satire and heartfelt sincerity, and the convoluted narrative jumbled together her husbands, jobs, children, and friends into one hilarious but confused pile of imaginary experience. At least her platitudes packed a punch as language, grounded in colorful folk talk rather than in pseudo-professional jargon.

All these impurities add up to a performance model in which the subversively experimental appears not in the form or material itself but in the underlying attitude. On the surface, nothing could be more unlike the feminist performances of the ’70s—are these sketches serious enough? But their post-Modern style, based on a twist in context (slice-of-life follies at the New Museum?), and those playful sets take comic aim toward some of the same basic feminist performance subjects: personal information and, ideally, revelation about women in contemporary society. While not serving up any shattering insights, “Two Titled” scored a few hits: ’80s performance is still a contact art.

John Howell