When Peggy Shaw hobbles onto stage I think, uh oh, she can’t walk right. Is this from the stroke she had in 2011? Shaw is one of my favorite performers–a stalwart of the downtown theater scene. Co-founder of the award winning lesbian performance group Split Britches. But she’s wobbly because she is only wearing one shoe—holding the other one in her hand, along with a bottle of water and an orange. A funny moment, after I think about it, and a wonderful way to put her audience at ease.
This is Ruff – Shaw’s solo show, written in collaboration with her long time writing partner Lois Weaver, about continuing on with life and art after suffering a stroke. Suffer may not be the right word for Shaw. She still commands the stage with her formidably butch frame–suited with her signature Marlon Brando-esque skinny tie, circa 1950, accompanied by a surprisingly soft voice and what always seems like a wink and a laugh.
During the show she explains the incident: “I was minding my own business, and an icicle of death hit the ocean floor of my brain.” Half of her brain is missing, she tells us, “there was just no more room for new thoughts in my brain. It had reached capacity.” And so according to her, it merely started to leak. Shaw recounts the events of the fateful day she ended up in the hospital, of the “potholes” in her brain that need to be filled and of the things she has trouble with now, like remembering words (hence the clever use of rolling video monitors as teleprompters and props). As she tells stories about family members and movies stars who inspired her; we can’t but be drawn inside her brain.
Ruff, which premiered at last year’s Coil Festival, mixes cabaret, storytelling and song. Performed on a “green screen of her mind” Shaw interacts with “unearthed memories,” video projections of her band, and the occasional floating fish. Her humor shines through as does her cleverness. Her stroke was in her “PONS, which rhymes with the ‘Fonz'” she tells us — one of her early role models. Luckily, this part of her brain does not appear to be leaking out. But don’t try to figure out what part of her brain is missing; she confesses that she doesn’t know what is going on in her brain, herself.
Should we be sad? Shaw really doesn’t give us the option. There is nothing sentimental or maudlin about her story. This is an artist’s tale: touching, funny, moving, theatrical. There is no stigma attached. At one point, Shaw tells us she’s seen the inside of her brain–she’s got the pictures to prove it, but that you can never take a picture of your thoughts. And yet, she rejoices in that fact that she can still fill hers with new insights.
Ruff, performed by Peggy Shaw, written by Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver, directed by Lois Weaver continues its run Thursday – Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday, January 26 at 2:30 p.m. at La MaMa’s First Floor Theater, 74A East Fourth Street.