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Beast Women

Great Beast Theater

at the O Bar & Cafe, through August 30

By Carol Burbank

Women have no wilderness in them--according to poet Louise Bogan, at least. More often than not I've reluctantly agreed with her: I've seen more coy confessions than wild experiments from Chicago's female performance artists, poetry slammers, and monologuists. Though there's plenty of entertaining rage, terror, artistic iconoclasm, and moral sentiment on Chicago's boards, it's the rare performer--male or female--who seems as unpredictable and ruthless as a wild beast.

But "Beast Women," a cabaret showcase, promises and occasionally produces just such a melee of monstrous wit: through the end of August, it offers 12 evenings of performance featuring 30 writers, singers, and actors--billed as the "furies storm the stage." The O Bar's small basement platform, with folding chairs for the audience (reminiscent of the mildewed cavern of the late, lamented Cafe Voltaire), is an unlikely place for such neo-mythology to occur. But if last Friday's roster was any indication, "Beast Women" does offer some of the finest savagery in town lately, along with some kinder, gentler pieces.

Performance artist Barrie Cole, confrontational as always, performed Chit Chat Chit, an indictment of gossips. Tastefully costumed in a button-down rayon dress and tights, Cole knelt on the stage and glared malevolently at the audience until the giggles died down. Then she leaned forward, roaring, extending her tongue like an avatar of Kali, the goddess of destruction, come to consume us all. Slowly, steadily she moved into a monologue so committed to gossipy excess that she became a monster of cleverness. Here was a fury.

Marssie Mencotti and Tom Lally's narrative duet, Don't Shake the Baby, is an unflinching and hilarious indictment of romantic myths of parenthood, offering some of the best writing of the evening. A child becomes a powerful, debilitating force in one couple's life; the actors virtually spit out such lines as "It [the child] was spread all over the world, its black wings beating against everything it wanted." Performed with disingenuous civility, Don't Shake the Baby represents a quiet meltdown of the nuclear family.

Anastasia Royal, reading an excerpt from her Don't Fuck Up My Funeral, trades a little too heavily on the charm of her British accent but manages a satirical tone that gives her work a casually brutal flair. Tall, world-weary, and speaking with an implicitly insulting leer, Royal's character refuses to sell herself to American-style politesse. Mary Chase closed the evening with a shocking, beautifully written monologue about the suffocating nature of heterosexual romance, The Desert of Your Presence. Starting with a frisson of self-indulgent melodrama, her character devolves into full-force martyrdom and self-destruction, all for the love of a man we know only as "this boy I love."

The other pieces were far less beastly. Singer-songwriter Holly Haylen performed folky, meandering tunes with vague lyrics, and actor-playwright McKinley Carter's earnest Don't Be Ugly: And Other Advice seemed a throwback to feminist performance of the 70s. Nikki Jacobs's tribute to her grandfather and sister, Something From Nothing, was competent but undistinguished, leaving a saccharine aftertaste. And Cheryl Woods paid a brief, self-indulgent gothic tribute to suicide in Lilies. But where were the furies, the thunder and surprise and sudden choking laughter that bursts out when artists break conventions?

Fortunately there were some such performances here, and the wilderness these women claimed went beyond simply describing the female experience or making pretty stories about personal growth--cultural ruts that feminist performers fall into with alarming regularity. With almost apocalyptic honesty, these women spoke with the lush, bitter confidence of their wildest visions, perhaps hailing the end of the world as men know it: the king is dead, long live the beast women.

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