'Monologue on horror' is ruminative, not horrifying

Mike Dunham

Peggy Shaw calls her new show "Ruff" "a slow monologue about horror" just before she recites the "Horror Has a Face" speech given by Marlon Brando as Col. Kurtz in "Apocalypse Now." But there's nothing palpably horrifying in the 80-minute multi-media soliloquy.

Co-written and directed by Shaw's longtime collaborator Lois Weaver, "Ruff" debuted to a handful of spectators at Out North on Thursday. It's not only the veteran New York performance artist's first new work since her stroke in January 2011, it's also her first solo theater piece. She's the only live person in the show; she interacts with a band and previous performers on video.

Shaw appears in coat and tie, looking like a club comic or lounge singer, and begins joking about her medical close call. Years of smoking was worth the high blood pressure, she says. Flashes are due to either too much coffee or not enough, her doctor says. And strokes can affect your personality.

"I went in as a (gay) woman who gets mistaken for a man and came out as a straight, white male," she says. "I don't cry. I shake hands because I can't hug. I can't ask for directions. I can't text and drive at the same time."

And she can't always be sure of what's happening in her mind. A stroke takes away part of your brain, she says, but you don't know which part. Even with monitors on all sides of her, "I don't know what comes next in the show," she says.

"Ruff" displays rambling non-linearity, a series of ruminations strung together with a common topic, though without a distinct dramatic direction.

In several places she sings along with pop songs. Shirley Ellis's "The Name Game" (aka "Banana-fana fo-fana") is used to convey how she uses mnemonic devices to remember people's names.

Other times she dovetails from her text into the lyrics to songs -- "If I Only Had a Brain" and "A Woman in Love" -- reciting them as if they were stand-alone poems.

Mixing such appropriations with her own narratives, she recounts several stories of personal loss.

Previously, it felt like her late sister was still present inside her. After the stroke that connection disappeared. It feels dull and empty, she says. As she recalls a dream in which deceased friends appear as fish in the Hudson River, large helium-filled clown fish balloons with internal electric fans "swim" through the air around the stage and through the audience.

"Ruff" is less active and antic than Shaw's earlier stage work. Themes of sex, identity and society that crowded the shows that made her a celebrity here take a back seat to the dominant reflections on mortality. The most active bit is a dance performed on a wheeled office chair, choreographed by Stormy Brandenberger. Shaw says it is, of necessity, a "simple show."

She says she speaks more slowly than she has in the past but the diction was generally clear enough for the small space at Out North -- clearer in fact than most New Yorkers, at least to the ears of an outsider. Her speech should be no problem when the show debuts in Manhattan next month.

What's less clear is whether "Ruff" produces more than a fleeting emotional impact on the viewer. There is empathy exchanged but no fresh gut-grabbing revelations. Perhaps that's inevitable, Shaw suggests, when she repeats Kurtz's observation that it is impossible for words to describe horror to those who have not encountered it.

Elsewhere, though, she muses that one can experience feelings of desire or fear without having a lover or being threatened. Awakening an audience to those feelings or putting them in focus is what theater, at its best, does. But those who have not had a stroke and still presume they will live forever will not be compelled to reconsider that attitude after seeing "Ruff."

What they will remember is the clown fish.

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.