Heidi Arneson is turning herself into a boy. "I need to find my sideburns," she explains helpfully while rifling through a hall closet in her West Bank duplex. The closet is stuffed to the ceiling with plastic tubs full of bits of costuming from the past two decades. After a minute, Arneson emerges triumphantly from the clutter with two strips of felt. She picks up a pair of scissors and pads into the bathroom, where she holds the material to her cheeks, cocks her head slightly, and pouts into the mirror. "What a handsome man I make!"
"I have to figure out what to do with Hansel's hair." She stalks back into the living room. "I probably want to grease it down. But I don't want grease. Aloe vera! That'll do." She disappears again and returns with a jar of goop. She's preparing for the evening's one-woman performance, a kinky fairy tale titled Pre-Hansel and Post-Gretel. (She'll be staging another one of her scripts, Mary Margaret, Please Appear, at the Acadia Cabaret, Saturday, March 4.) "I've been going over the lines in my head all day. I usually get low key. It's like I get drugged." She holds out her bare arm, palm up. "My psyche goes way down."
There are ellipses of glitter around Arneson's eyes, which are intensely blue and unblinking. Her hair, dirty blond, is cut short. At age 41, she would remind you of Carol Brady if you could imagine Carol Brady spinning around the house and murmuring in a sharp German accent: "De bitch vas never alive. She vas never alive, so she cannot die. De bitch vas never alive. She vas never alive...."
Her two black cats, Max and Henry, are lounging on the couch, eyes half-shut. They're twins and lying back to back, so that from a few paces they appear to be one very long cat with two faces. "We got them at a real-life cat house," Arneson says as she spins by. "The woman who owned it was a real-life midwife from Tennessee. She had on this cashmere sweater that was pinned up with safety pins, and she had these huge breasts. And no bra. She told us, 'The Humane Society said I couldn't have any more kittens.'"
Arneson slips out through another door and returns with a pair of fabulously tall white platform shoes. She puts them on and teeters to her feet. Behind her, a nurse's uniform with a nametag--"Hi. I'm Gretel"--is hanging on a doorknob. She's rehearsing now, eyes closed, legs akimbo, arms fluttering, muttering softly to herself. "You see, I'm not talking. I just go through it in my head. To save my voice." The elongated cat yawns indifferently with two mouths.
A few minutes later, Arneson is balancing one-legged on a chair placed in the center of the living room and singing, "Tie a yellow ribbon around de old oak tvee," and then, "People, people who eat people," switching from Dietrich to Streisand midphrase. She lopes off the chair and into another room. When she emerges, she is wearing a taffeta evening gown and an apron with another nametag: "Hi. I'm the Bitch." She grabs an electric bass guitar and picks a few notes and starts singing again: "There's nothing in my heart but a bucket of blood. B-l-o-o-d. Blood."
In the corner of the room, a votive candle is spreading cinnamon-scented ambiance through the apartment. Next to the candle, there is a pile of brightly colored pillows where Arneson practices yoga. During a recent session, she says, she had an epiphany. "A nasty voice said, 'You're not worthy of this practice.' My next insight was I was just sinews and muscles, pulleys and levers. Who I was was a fairy tale I was whispering to myself--the weather up in my head."
The meteorological conditions in Arneson's parietal orb also make up her art. She has performed naked and bound at the wrists. She has mulled over the prepubescent realpolitik of slumber parties. She deals in incest, androgyny, psychosis, and the gruesome subtext of fairy tales. Her forte, the small hurts of childhood, would for most be the subject of intensely private therapy sessions; Arneson has made a career of her shame, bearing it to the world in fantastic and occasionally grotesque one-woman fabliaux. "When I first started performing, and all that stuff was coming out, it was as if someone had shot my arm full of sedatives. My psyche didn't want me to go there. Early mornings after those performances, my optic nerves would be on fire with shame over sharing something so private."
The bedrock of Arneson's psyche, she says, is New Brighton, Minnesota, where she grew up the last of seven children born to an eccentric and artistic mother and intemperate father. "I always thought there was something scary about suburbia," she says now. "If everything appears homogenized on the outside, there's a lot of energy and exotica boiling up on the inside." It was a place where, as one of Arneson's alter egos nicely puts it, everything--residents included--was clean, white, and screwed down tight.