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The War of All Mothers 

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Materia Prima

Fillet of Solo Festival

Live Bait Theater, through August 30

At the most superficial level, Materia Prima chronicles Stephanie Shaw's soul-rattling attempts to get her three-year-old daughter to shit regularly. But well before Newsweek picked up on mommy lit, Shaw was packing it with more vicious humor and poetic horrors than mainstream publishers could ever stomach: Materia Prima is the final installment of a trilogy about motherhood Shaw began more than four years ago at the always adventurous Neo-Futurarium.

In fact, somewhere in the middle of this hour-long solo piece you begin to see life-changing profundities in images of baby poop. These come after you've watched Shaw prowl about her makeshift kitchen late at night, traumatized by her young daughter's terror at her own bowel movements. The beleaguered Shaw's terry-cloth robe, unstyled clump of hair, and darkly circled eyes make her look more like a torture victim than a suburban mother of three. Shaw isn't content to settle for the Oprah-fied version of the motherhood battle: it's tough, but isn't it all worthwhile when you stare into those big, smiling eyes? Instead she pushes her saga into a minefield of myth and psychosis. The battle being waged here is for her soul, a battle she's clearly losing--a struggle paralleled in her obsessive viewings of The Exorcist on late-night television. In contrast to our culture's expectations, she dares to put her own life on an equal footing with her child's. In her darkest moments, she even seems ready to tear the kid to shreds if it will restore some sense of her independence.

Under Edward Thomas-Herrera's measured direction, that darkness emerges only in occasional well-placed moments. But the threat of self-destructive possession rumbles continually beneath the surface. Shaw offers a glimpse of it even before the piece begins. While the audience enters Live Bait's tiny studio, she sits in a cramped nook far upstage, glued to a television--it seems her life force is being sucked out by its mesmerizing glow. After a blackout, we hear the opening strains of "Tubular Bells" from The Exorcist. A spotlight picks up a coffee machine atop the refrigerator, brewing away. Then another spotlight hits Shaw, plastered against a downstage wall, haunted by something only she can see. She begins to edge toward the coffee machine as though under its control, trapped in an absurd horror-movie moment. But when she reaches the coffeepot, the lights instantly brighten and she snaps into normalcy, pouring herself a cup and chatting with the crowd. Something vicious is brewing down deep in her soul, and she's doing her best to keep it there.

In a slightly unstable voice, Shaw says that her three-year-old pooped for the "first time in four days, no wonder she is terrified, and when she manages to saw the thing off it is the size of Rhode Island, it is a piece of Mesopotamia, it is epic." With this first sentence, Shaw creates the image of a monstrous ancient entity ripping its way out of the tiny girl's body. This "fossil that has been calcifying" in her child's lower intestine clogs the toilet, which eventually overflows, leading mommy to scream, "Motherfucking son-of-a-bitch cunting thing!" Then she picks her daughter up off the "fecal floor," and using every ounce of self-control she can muster, calmly intones, "You must poop. At least once every other day. You must. Everyone does it, the whole world does it, and so must you." An incantation against the forces within her daughter's gut, these words suggest both solace and regret: under the normalizing pressures of acculturation, this thrilling little monster will one day cease to exist.

Then Shaw delivers a truly heartbreaking punch. Mopping up the mess and scrounging around for something Freud might have said about her child's predicament, she says, "There's a lesson in here somewhere." But it's clear from her hesitant delivery and the searching look in her eyes that she's utterly lost. She's up to her ankles in toilet water, convinced for a moment that guidance will never come.

This monumental two-minute opening expertly sets up the rest of the piece. Immersing herself in the centuries-old manuals of alchemists--at least in the few moments when the demands of her daughter and the obsessive pull of The Exorcist allow it--Shaw looks for enlightenment. The alchemists, she explains, were out to turn base materials--what they called "materia prima"--into gold and thereby "transmute the obscurity of ignorance." On one level the analogy to her own life is clear: she's desperate to emerge from the obscurity in which she feels trapped and somehow find meaning. But the alchemists' texts are oblique and encrypted, offering maddeningly contradictory suggestions. She's as helpless at piecing together some coherent guide to transformation as she is at getting her daughter's derailed development back on track.

The things that need to be transmuted in Shaw's life are many: her child, her imagination, an oversize turd. In one of the evening's more tantalizing moments, she suggests that the very piece she's performing is in desperate need of transformation. Taking a rare moment to reflect upon the daily drudgery of motherhood, she laments that surely she's not creating an entire work out of such banality. In a crushing moment, the artist gives up on the material she's trying to fashion into art.

Emotional complexity spills naturally out of Shaw's ingeniously crafted material, as does a great deal of humor. But her repeated attempts at kitschy, weary-housewife shtick are misguided. Trying to transform a Twinkie into gold typifies the sort of easy-laugh episode that has no place in a work of such multilevel sophistication. And like the ancient alchemists, Shaw hasn't quite created a satisfying end product. Ultimately her returns to the ancient guidebooks seem dutiful, and the final stages of alchemical process offer few new insights. Laying out her fascinating material over the course of about 45 minutes, she then shuffles it about for the final 15, stymied before the enormity of her own purpose. For its full potential to be released, Materia Prima needs an explosive transformation of its own.

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