How do we know when to stop? When enough is enough?
Conversely, what do we do when we are stopped, when the universe conspires to shut us down?
These questions, and a host of others, frame and are suggested by Last Gasp: A Recalibration, the latest work from Split Britches, a team of aging lesbians who’ve been making and showing theatrical pieces, together and separately, for more than 40 years. Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw, now 73 and 78, respectively, were at work on Last Gasp in 2020, when the pandemic brought everything to a standstill. Gradually, operating out of an empty house in London lent to them when they got stuck in the city in March, they reconfigured their material into Last Gasp WFH (“Working From Home”). That piece, in which they played themselves, was recorded on Zoom and streamed from La Mama during the long, lonely winter of 2020 to ’21.
Recently, they’ve reworked the material for live presentation. The Boston-bred Shaw had a stroke a decade ago and can no longer remember lines, so most of her sections of the piece are recorded on video, her lean, Lincoln-esque form projected larger than life on sheets hanging from rigging above the stage. She wears headphones through which she’s fed the words she speaks, or she reads them off pages taped to the walls.
Weaver, a white woman originally from Roanoke, Virginia, finds herself grappling with recent crises in race relations, particularly the murder of George Floyd, and with the earth’s fragile ecology. “Fifty-thousand bumblebees died all at once on one day in Oregon,” she tells us live from the stage, while costumed rather like a bumblebee in a yellow rain jacket over a black dress with tall yellow rainboots on her previously bare feet. “They couldn’t recalibrate,” she says thoughtfully.
“I’m old! I wanna do what I wanna do.”
A bit later, Weaver asks, “Does anyone really know what to expect from an aging body?” She dances a little, her dress falling pleasantly over her curves, reminding me of the late Trisha Brown, post-modern genius choreographer, as she makes gentle, slightly preoccupied shapes in space. Weaver thinks out loud: “Are you finding it difficult to come out … of the house?”
Weaver does most of the (literal) heavy lifting and pushing in Last Gasp, shoving tables, hauling huge yellow tarps. She also directs, as she puts it, “from within.” Tables are one of her obsessions, and when she’s not spreading a tarp on one she’s stretching out on it, lying prone while her partner holds forth on video projected horizontally on a folding table resting on its side.
Recalling her early influences, all male, Shaw remembers several singers named Johnny, one Black, one white, including childhood favorite Johnnie Ray, the “nabob of sob.” She tells us she feels lucky she started to write in the ’70s, “when there weren’t so many words for what I was doing,” and feels sorry for the younger ones who “seem so confined by theory-speak.” She says that one of those youngsters told her, “Go away if you can’t keep up.” This startled Shaw, who says she’s “spent my life acting and dressing and living and behaving as a woman who was mistaken for a man … an old-school queer.”
Weaver moves a table right up to the first row of the audience, describes an old jukebox, and wonders “how many records I’ve got left to play.” The pair, longtime professional partners and sometime personal ones, squabble over life and love, Weaver center stage, Shaw a disembodied voice booming over the sound system. Videos of bees at work in their honeycombs take over the space, and whirling LED fixtures, like exploded disco balls, fill the air with yellow light.
“Somehow,” Weaver tells the spectral voice, “I feel caught in between your presence and absence.” Shaw keeps complaining: “Why must the show go on again? I’m tired of people telling me what to do. I’m old! I wanna do what I wanna do. Maybe … I’ll take off all my clothes, walk out into the woods, and let the winter take me….” Weaver then rips down the sheet that’s held Shaw’s image and lets down her own thick auburn hair. They go on in this vein, quoting from movies, rehashing old beefs, until … well, I’m not going to give away the denouement.
I’ll only say that by the end, half the sparse preview crowd was in tears. Using the simplest of means—in collaboration with Nao Nagai (lighting), Vivian Stoll (sound), and Morgan Thorson (choreography), with costumes by Susan Young and design consultants Matt Delbridge and John Jesurun—two old broads once again manage to bring the house down.
One last question: Why is it that most of the new shows catching my attention, that I want to visit and think about and write about, are happening at La Mama? This season’s theme at the downtown experimental theatre club is “Remake a World,” and under the stewardship of Mia Yoo, a dozen or so offerings seem intent on doing just that. ❖
Elizabeth Zimmer has written about dance, theater, and books for the Village Voice and other publications since 1983. She runs writing workshops for students and professionals across the country, has studied many forms of dance, and has taught in the Hollins University MFA dance program.