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"MENOPAUSE IS ALL of your characteristics blown up a million times," warns Peggy Shaw one recent Saturday morning, her Boston-accented voice ringing over the phone lines with the sonority of experience. "So when you finally hit it, hopefully you have a lot of great characteristics." With this candid observation, the writer, director, and performer once described by the New York Times as "an East Village icon of lesbian butchness," begins to detail the physical and emotional maelstrom euphemized as The Change. It's not all pretty, but so what? Women spend most of their lives dealing with the fickle ways of hormones, and Shaw, a 55-year-old mother and grandmother, is certainly better than most at explaining--and even embracing--the "beast" lurking within. Her one-woman show Menopausal Gentlemanjust won an Obie Award and will be performed this weekend as part of the Dyke Night festivities at the Walker Art Center.
Menopause, with all of its night sweats and mood swings, was a simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting experience for Shaw. "I had more desire than before," she explains. "I was wetter than ever. I was smarter. The earth made more sense. There's a feeling of being an elder." Of course, a downside presented itself as well. "For the first time in my life, nothing worked for me. I was totally depressed," Shaw recalls. "I couldn't do things that were good for me, like exercise or meditation. I started smoking, drinking. When I got really bad, I pulled myself up. It's just a personal thing about life. You know too much when you get older."
Shaw performs Menopausal Gentleman in a double-breasted suit, her craggy features and short-cropped hair evoking comparisons to a modern-day Spencer Tracy or a spiffy Sean Penn. "A woman passing as a man looks like a younger man," she notes during one monologue in the piece. "I keep young by passing, you see. It's a tradeoff. I sacrifice being a woman for youth." Shaw discovered this idea last year while performing off-Broadway in Carson Kreitzer's The Slow Drag, a play inspired by Billy Tipton, the jazz musician and bandleader who spent 40 years passing as a man until death revealed her secret, a discovery that apparently came as a complete surprise to her wives. During the production run, Shaw strapped down her breasts and sported a suit on a daily basis, sliding between the male and female realms with relative ease. When Shaw and collaborator Rebecca Taichman began working on Menopausal Gentleman, the performer's ventures into the testosterone zone naturally shaped the course of the show.
"All of the images that came to me turned out to be encased in this suit," she explains. "The suit held me together in a way." Such complexities of acquired experience inspire Shaw's creative choices as no formal education did. "I've never been trained in theater," she says, without sounding arrogant. "Everything I ever saw or read about theater never did me any good as a queer, and women have never fared too well in traditional theater."
After early years in an Irish working-class family where her father fostered a gender-neutral environment ("All the girls and boys had the same muscles," she laughs), Shaw moved from Boston to New York before eventually landing in London, where she met Lois Weaver. In 1980 the duo, now stateside, formed the acclaimed theater company Split Britchesalong with Deb Margolin and also established WOW Café, a vibrant women's performance space on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
After 30 years onstage, Shaw has learned that what one writes on paper is not always the same as what happens on stage. "I didn't know Menopausal Gentleman was funny, but when I first did it in Boston, the audience was hysterical. Now I have to work on my timing," she says with wonder. "When I was younger, I thought you could control an audience. Now, if an audience reacts in a certain way, I think, 'Hmm, that's interesting.' It's like a relationship; I have to make it work for them."
Peggy Shaw performs at 8:00 p.m. June 24-27 at the Walker Art Center; (612) 375-7622.