New York

Salley May

P.S. 122

In Salley May’s recent performance, entitled Cradle Rock, 1990, she tackled two extremely taboo but unfortunately common domestic nightmares: incest and eating disorders. That she was able to make connections between these dysfunctions, and, not only prevent the audience from zoning out, but get them to laugh, testifies to the potential of May’s trademark blend of point-blank symbolism, offbeat humor, and deliberately makeshift esthetics.

The opening scene was both eerie and visually stunning. The characters first appeared bobbing up and down behind a waist-high screen like decoys in a carnival shooting gallery, lifting ragged baby-dolls over their heads. They soon tumbled out toward the audience in a symbolic birthing that established the personae of father, mother, grandmother, and six daughters (including two sets of identical twins).

Meaningful resonances occurred early in the piece when the character identified in the handout as “King Snake” appeared the moment the mother spurns her husband’s advances after the kids had been sent to bed, and dad announced that he was going to “go help Betsy with her homework.” The blunt symbolism of a gyrating “snake” wearing a five-foot-high, soft-sculpture, erect-penis costume could have been a real eye-roller, but for the fact that he simultaneously brandished a small fog machine that clouded the scene. The mist suggests not only the way in which family problems so often are diffused into an ether of denial but, more specifically, the way in which children who get visited by parents after bedtime under euphemistic pretenses sometimes find those memories coming back to haunt them later in life—appearing, gradually, out of a fog bank of sanity-saving amnesia.

Another salvation for many abused children is the secret world of eating disorders—a very private, self-constructed world, in which children who have little control over parentally and societally constructed environments take a kind of desperate control of their bodies via what they will or will not eat or digest.

But eating disorders have a nasty way of ultimately taking control of the controller. Betsy expresses some of the foregoing concepts in her monologue: “I can’t think in school. I’m afraid to be seen. This is what happens when you won’t shut up. I won’t keep it down so I throw it all up. I become empty as I can be, ’til there’s nothing left inside of me. See how tiny I can get. . . . I’ll disappear yet!” Her remarks are followed by responses from family members of denial, disdain, and displacement. They can’t quite locate the name of this disease (“Ana, Ana. . . Anastasia! Anarctica! . . . Anarex! . . . Freak!”). Dad glibly tells Betsy she’s thinking too much and all she needs to do is listen to him. Mom decides a good boyfriend will solve everything. The twins consider taking the mother’s advice, then one pair announces “we’d rather die,” thus showing that there are many ways to “act out” in a troubled home.

May cast a male actor in the role of Betsy and cast herself in the role of the father, suggesting the dissociation from one’s sexuality and/or gender that is the paradoxical corollary of the body-reclamation project of anorexia or bulimia. The two actors tower above everyone, May’s height augmented by enormous platform shoes that transformed her into a cartoon creature. The humor provided by this caricatured cross-dressing helps mitigate May’s otherwise heavy material concerning, in her words, “faulty family foundations.” Near the end of the performance the father yells, “I don’t think I’ve shown you what I’ve been working on in the garage!” as he rips off his rumpled grey suit, revealing (May’s body in) a hot red-and-black teddy. This segment, delivered with expert comedic timing, got the biggest laugh of the night. But one began to wonder, as “transsexualized” Dad forces Betsy onto the dinner table and mounts her, if the laughter was not the hebephrenic sort that seeks to mask uneasy feelings, threatening to plunge us into pathos, or our own fog bank of safely suppressed memories.

Kathy O’Dell