Past Lives

These Are My Sisters

Southern Theater

Cruising With My Ancestors

EDGE Theater

           "HAVEN'T WE BEEN through this?" some might ask of Martha Boesing, author and performer of These Are My Sisters, a solo meditation on the women's movement of the 1970s. Well, sure, we have been through it--and it's with a healthy sense of humor that Boesing burns a cut-out paper bra at the start of the show. But one quickly realizes that Sisters is meant to be a historical document as much as a play. Founder of At the Foot of the Mountain women's theater and herself in middle age, Boesing is aware that this sort of history starts to fade if it isn't somehow preserved.

           But she also knows that half of history unfolds unseen, inside us, and this underside of events is where she sets her sights: the muck of interior contradiction, where rhetoric stretches like taffy. It's here the tap root of activism lies, secreted beneath words, and the audience remembers why we thought about feminism (and what woman hasn't, in some form?) in the first place. It was pain.

           Which all sounds pretty lofty for a one-woman show with no costumes, no set, and precious few props. Not to worry. Boesing's a pro. She performs five monologues back-to-back, each a different white woman's story of how she became a feminist. There's Jane, the pot-smoking hippie lesbian; Char, the Feminist Mystique-era housewife; Naomi, the Jewish Brooklyn Marxist; Rhea, the goddess-culture scholar; and Perry, the butch bar dyke. The last section is--seriously--a heated discussion among all five women, punctuated with emotional subtext by a one-woman chorus.

           The script covers the bases of Feminism 101: Char's opinion that lesbians damaged the movement's PR; Perry's noble indignation; Naomi's disgust with how you're "always supposed to be so fucking nice" in feminist circles; Jane's astonishment when she first sleeps with another woman--shouting the good news to people on the street, "Everyone should try it!"; and Rhea's lady-like discovery that "What if God is a woman? Oh my. That changes everything." Often, as when Perry describes being arrested at a lesbian bar pre-Stonewall, Boesing reaches a near-suspension of time, of our awareness that we're watching a play at all.

           But for all the ideas thrown around, the piece's most indelible moment is nothing more than a silent gesture, as Boesing assumes the body of Perry: Sliding down the seat of her chair, hunkering, she rests a foot on a knee, cocks her shoulder, and cracks a sly, crooked grin. After a moment's hesitation, the largely female audience rippled with laughter, not to see a butch lesbian parodied, but to see one so honestly, completely embodied.

           Perry is Boesing's strongest characterization; Rhea has an unconvincing stutter and Naomi's "Brooklyn" accent is erratic. Fortunately, Boesing's acting isn't based on outward tics; rather, you can almost see her interior fall into each character, somewhere around the solar plexus, as she shifts her breathing to the right frequency. A couple times during the group debate, she was off, though mostly she was on; one expects she'll have it down soon enough.

           My friend noticed that the play had no coda, no resolution. A feminist theory professor might call that a rejection of phallocentric thought, of the Western hero-odyssey dramatic paradigm. I call it smart: By leaving questions open (for example, "What did we really accomplish?"), she puts the ball in our court. This movement is unfinished. One wishes a younger woman would write a companion piece to flesh out some of the yet-unrecognized channels feminism has assumed since the '70s.

           Harvey Stein's Cruising With My Ancestors (directed by Paul Boesing, a longtime collaborator on and offstage with Martha) also tries to tread the razor's edge where education and entertainment meet, but doesn't work as well. A one-man show about Stein's discovery of his East European Jewish roots, it has some good, original moments, and one laments the lack of a tough director to tighten the script and acting. For example, in the opening bit, Stein plays himself as a teen sitting down to watch The Outer Limits. Instead, a Jewish angel appears onscreen to give young Harvey a good talking to. Terrible fake beard and poor sound aside, the device is clever. Too bad Stein hasn't got his question-answer timing down.

           Stein also does a "rap" about "Deassimilation Man." A smart adviser could have told him that you don't need to borrow the trappings of an oppressed group to prove your alliance--in fact, better if you don't. Or at least, "Harvey, if you can't rap, don't."

           He can play steel drums, though, performing two haunting klezmer songs on them. And in another poignant moment, Stein dresses up as his grandmother, swaying mutely to old French love songs, lighting candles, swinging her arms, remembering. If only it hadn't gone on about seven minutes too long, and Stein hadn't felt the need to inform us earlier how tiring it is to do a one-man show. I can almost hear his vaudevillian kin from the grave, begging him to stop his kvetching. CP

           These Are My Sisters runs through July 21 at the Southern Theater; call 340-1725. Cruising With My Ancestors runs through July 28 at Mixed Blood Theater; call 872-9192.

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