WHILE FOLKLORE IS often diminutively and derisively termed "Old Wives' Tales," it could more accurately be called the converse: "Toddlers' Fables." For it is children--petty, spiteful, and superstitious--who take most readily to these skewed morality skits. In Mary Margaret, Please Appear, performance artist Heidi Arneson presents a full cache of urban mythology, reenacting the charged rituals of a 1970's slumber party. Arneson's script, less recited than chanted, depicts this chaste orgy of awkwardness with the finest of details: the sadism of the ice-skating whip; the idiocy of Truth or Dare; the hierarchy of breast development (as displayed with a pair of balloons); the social significance of sleeping-bag positions.
Portraying a cast of eight through gestural shorthand--a bobbing ostrich neck for Cathy, a Scotch-taped pig-nose for another girl--Arneson's approach to adolescence is perceptive, comic, and literate. Also mean. Noting how reluctant Arneson is to treat her characters with some measure of generosity, ones hopes she realizes just how nasty little Heidi is. The only thing worse than eight tittering and sniggering girls, it would seem, is seven sniggering girls and one coward who imitates them after the fact. All of which deserves attention only to the extent that young Heidi's trademark sing-song slips from cute to precious; at times, Arneson's sympathies seem to lie too close to her young alter ego.
The titular image is Mary Margaret (a.k.a. Bloody Mary), an apparition summoned by looking into a mirror and thrice invoking her name. On the shag carpet--which seems to grow deeper with each mention--the girls play Lift, spinning grisly tales that end in the death of the subject; she becomes a levitating cadaver, light as a feather, stiff as a board. And there's the ghost story about the make-out maniac, recently escaped from the asylum to prey on young couples. Nowhere is safe. (Ever since a California man kidnapped and murdered a girl from her birthday party a few years back, these lurid tales have grimly leapt from the unconscious to the actual.)
European sociologists have made much of fairy tales, cataloguing thousands of permutations of Snow White, for instance. And while some narrative elements vary, others--Snow White's black hair, red lips, and white skin--seem more universal. Bruno Bettelheim argued that such details contained the true psychosexual script of each fable--in this case, the passage to adult sexuality and the generational replacement of the mother-figure.
In the New World, a lone professor in Utah has made a career out of compiling contemporary mythology: alligators in the storm sewers; Mikey and the pop rocks; the cat in the microwave; Rod Stewart and the ingested sperm. But it doesn't take a Ph.D. in the Puberty Arts to infer that Mary Margaret represents some frightening and ineluctable incarnation of American womanhood itself. Employing the methodology of stand-up comedy in place of Bettelheim's braniac routine, Arneson has uncovered the deeper structures of adolescence. Whatever young Heidi says to that bathroom mirror, Mary Margaret, by biology, is coming for them all.
The three Sam Shepard one-acts performed by the Bald Alice Theatre Company turn the search for our culture's logic outside-in, their fragmented, experimental dialogue reminiscent of the synaptic explosions of the dream state. Icarus's Mother depicts the apocalyptic ceremony that is a Fourth of July Picnic. Action, in which five crackpot companions seek their fortune after the end of the world, might be metaphorically described as a macabre Thanksgiving feast from within the dark and infinite belly of the bird. The War in Heaven sees Shepard collaborating with a post-stroke Joseph Chaikin to create an abstract meditation on the mystery of, uh, life; the splitting of the monologue among four prancing angels imbues this version with the soul of a Calvin Klein commercial.
Regrettably, the quicksilver substance in these scripts frequently escapes Bald Alice's young directors; they overcommit to some beats, then waffle through the rest. And while Shepard may be laughing at the void, these actors (and this generation?) employ self-consciousness and irony as a defense against the unknown; their hesitant attempts at comedy constitute more of a collective blink. Actor Drew Kahl almost gets it right, sporting some serious pit-stains before the first line is spoken; indeed, the actor's answers to Shepard's enigmas might lie in the body, not the head. CP
Mary Margaret Please Appear runs through April 27; 822-7063.Not in Any Place runs through April 28 at the Cedar Riverside People's Center; 870-9987.