Over the past decade or so, performance artist Shelly Mars's forte has been authoring and physicalizing some of the wildest, most outrageously drawn characters in solo theatre. In both comic and dramatic turns, she's been brilliantly disturbing in plumbing the dark possibilities of human fear and desire. In her recent new show, however, she's turned intensely autobiographical, taking the audience on a circuitous walk through her life. Her childhood as part of the only Jewish family among the "white Christian trash" of Ohio is only the beginning of her unorthodox spiritual trek.
Mars's appetites and obsessions often seem so extreme that it's difficult to relate to her in a conventional sense. But this is not to say she is without insight into several touchy areas. She is especially incisive when dissecting the malleability of gender, as when she speaks of "turning into a boy" on the inside and assuming male body english when alone with her father (watching porn flicks at a drive-in together).
Her feelings toward her parents are intensely, cacophonously conflicting and are grippingly expressed when she plays them both in a (failed) session with a family counselor. To her credit, Mars doesn't spell out the conclusions she's come to in an overly obvious way but shares them in wonderfully revealing moments of physical and verbal attitude, her points clear without simplistic exposition. The offhand way she speaks of "rape scenes" she experienced during periods of sexual exploration speaks volumes about her outlook on life and its dangers.
Indeed, Mars seems to have had a steady love affair with danger throughout her life. From constant run-ins with local creeps and "inbreds" in her adolescence to promiscuous, anonymous sex in a bisexual bath house in the mid-'80s to a truly scary episode hitchhiking in South America with her lover. She is less clear on just what exactly magnetizes her to these dances along the precipice, and the show could have used some more spelunking through this area of her soul.
To criticize the show for not having a clearly followable throughline would miss much of its point; the title is Whiplash, and Mars seems to have been flung about less by objective circumstances than by her own reckless, almost uncontainable inner anarchy. That energy is shrewdly channeled and focused with solid theatrical sense by director Vera Beren. Beren's choices in making the most of Mars's live-wire imagination bespeak a keen understanding of the performer's strengths. For instance, the atmosphere of absurdity that seems to swirl through Mars's life is established neatly at the show's outset with Mars reading a meticulously detailed list of instructions from a masochistic John who is a client of hers. (She having developed a side business as, what she calls, "a hand-job 'ho.") She reads it in a bland, businesslike style that renders any further comment on it (or her part in it) superfluous.
The acid rock-based sound design by John Plenge merged well with Stewart Wagner's eccentric lighting to find an atmospheric equivalent of Mars's text. There was no credit for set design, but the concatenation of odd objects (a stereo on a swing that Mars occasionally blasts, stark-looking metal furniture, and a noose that hangs in the background pregnant with metaphor) as well as sculpture by Jim Zivic, Robert Ferraroni, and Malcolm Stevenson establish a sort of haunted-house feel from which Mars holds court.
Mars is going to Los Angeles with the show. Should it return to the Kitchen or some other Manhattan venue, you should go to see this fearlessly honest, brashly imaginative artist.
Copyright 1996 John Michael Koroly
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