Sister Grimm

Acting with maggots and channeling hermaphrodites, performer Heidi Arneson parades her inner monster

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.

"It's like something I say about a particular family I know in my adult life. They look so normal during the day. They have normal jobs and work hard at being normal. But at night they put on animal masks and dance naked with their breasts hanging out."

During an unexceptional but not entirely pleasant childhood spent in what she remembers as the forbidding wasteland of conformity that is New Brighton, Arneson decided that she might like to become an artist. She got her first taste of the theater, she recalls, playing a dead boy in a high school production. "I vividly remember lying onstage and, through the slits of my eyes, sensing the audience out in the darkness." She was hooked on the feeling, and eventually landed a job acting in a Science Museum installation as an ancient (and, incidentally, very pregnant) Egyptian spirit. "Hail Osiris, God of the Underworld!" Arneson demonstrates, her eyes bulging and her hands sweeping over her head majestically.

A mummy is, appropriately, the main character in Arneson's latest script, Baby Blue Tissue, which she read in part a few days earlier at "Heidi House," one of the periodic cabaret performances she holds for a class she leads in storytelling. In this script, a New Brighton family adopts a withered corpse. "It's just writing itself," she says glowingly.

Arneson does not work very hard at being normal. Life, she likes to say, is short, and we never know how long we have our bodies to work with. Among her most surreal experiences, she counts her time with the Olympia Arts Ensemble, a now-defunct West Bank troupe that did "lots of dark, European stuff." "It was the late Seventies, so everyone was partying a lot. I'd stay in the space all night, then clean up beer bottles and ashtrays in the morning. I scrubbed toilets.

"We were doing this very dark play about a medieval carnival," she recalls. "I was playing a hermaphrodite who sodomized a priest, which we didn't portray literally. Anyway, there was this big scene about the battle between good and evil. I was on my knees near the stage and there was a maggot crawling across the floor. It was unreal."

When performance art inched into the theatrical mainstream in the early Nineties, Arneson struck out on her own. She debuted a ten-minute piece as a part of the Walker's Out There series in which she regaled the crowd with a fantasy about sitting in church and copulating with Satan. "In retrospect," she says, "it was a perfect introduction to opening up my psyche and letting the monsters out."

Exorcism, however, is an occasionally messy business. "I was doing this piece where I covered myself in white paint, then painted myself onstage. I just wanted to do something crazy. This other performer who was going onstage after me told me, 'Don't do your nude piece.' We got into a fistfight." She flails out at the air in front of her. "She was circling me and spitting stuff out of her mouth." Arneson stalks around the edge of the room, glowering.

Then she is gone, into the bedroom. "It was like, how far was I going to stand up for my freedom of speech?" she calls back. She is checking, she reports, to make sure that her underwear is not see-through. "We don't want to do that kind of show tonight!"

She returns in street clothes, carrying a blond wig with a nurse's hat tacked to it. She begins to tuck the evening's accouterments into a suitcase. There's a toothbrush sticking out of the corner of her mouth. She slips into the bathroom, from whence issue a minute's worth of gargling sounds. Then she is out the door, suitcase in tow.

Outside, in the gathering darkness of a frigid late afternoon, Arneson begins to pack her things into her car. She pauses for a moment to look across the street, where a flock of crows has taken up residence in the tallest branches of a tree. "You know," she says. "this piece is all about crows.

"I've had so many weird, serendipitous experiences with it. I was writing about a burn victim--a little girl with burns. Then, the next day, I saw a girl in a coffee shop with burns all over her body. I went over to introduce myself and shake her hand." She holds up a fist. "She didn't have any fingers. They were burned off."

A little boy screams somewhere nearby in the neighborhood, and the frightened birds scatter in a black cloud over the treetops.

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