Theater archives

Take a Shrill Ride


“Oh Goddddddddesssssssss, what am I doing here all hectic athwart a space needle?” asks the rave girl Clove, as the denouement unwinds in What Ever, Heather Woodbury’s eight-episode, four-evening whirligig of a ride through (mostly) white America. One of a dozen central characters—all enacted by Woodbury—Clove dangles from Seattle’s phallic tourist attraction and wonders: “How did I allow those brussels sprouts to deludate me again? Blow winds blow, caw gulls caw, Please goddddessses if you regurgitate me from this melee, I vow I’ll do something different with my life. I’ll be all banal and lambish and I’ll stop terrorizing my rancid hippy parents.” And maybe she will.

The convoluted plotting gets most of our benighted heroes to the scene in Seattle for a comic and cosmic finale, but whether on location or not, all of them find resolution: The oil exec who has denounced his corporate ways pledges eternal devotion to his mistress; the Hell’s Kitchen whore, Bushie, affirms her lesbian affinities and dances with her true love; and the word-twisting rave dude Skeeter (nephew of the oil exec’s paramour) gets one of the girls. The ending, in fact, is downright Plautine, pulling out all the old Roman tricks: identical characters mistaken for each other, relatives discovering their long-lost kin, lovers coupling off into sweet and tidy pairs. What a disappointment.

The intersecting shenanigans of Woodbury’s mid-’90s ravers, hookers, dropouts, migrant farmworkers, suburbanites, Wiccans, streetfolk, and an Upper East Side, poodle-hugging octogenarian begin when Clove wanders into the sea and is saved by Cobain the Friendly Ghost, who places her in a field of brussels sprouts. Journeys across America, across consciousnesses and bad attitudes, ensue. That they should end in such a contrivance of nirvana seems, as Skeeter might say, “a commodifying perfidy perpetrated on a performance-art raggediness of authentic downtownitude.” The tangled lives Woodbury has been chronicling in her monologues since the early ’90s—and performing serially to create a mosaic of American experience—should stay knotted up or at loose ends, or at least defy the demands of neat narrative.

But then, it’s got to end somehow, this mad epic. And Woodbury is far more interested in character—in voice, really—than in plot. Her project is to capture the cadences and caprices of speech and, through them, social being. Most of the time, she conjures a person within a world in a couple of lines. Occasionally, though, the writing gets precious, more involved in itself than in its subject. As a performer, Woodbury’s own voice is sometimes a problem, too: The impressive marathon strains her apparently untrained instrument, and she goes shrill. Still, the writing stays grounded, piecing together a recent past that history has already washed away.