MUST – The Inside Story

Last night took us to Peggy Shaw’s MUST-The Inside Story. Peggy, co-founder of WoW Cafe and Split Britches is something of a legend. One of the groundbreaking figures of lesbian/feminist theater she continues to create compelling work that is resonant and meaningful.

In MUST, Peggy collaborates with the celebrated UK-based Clod Ensemble, taking the audience on a journey across the landscape of her own body.  In her signature mix of poetic language and tough-butch spoken word storytelling she recounts her extraordinary experiences of the medical profession from her current perspective as a 65-year-old lesbian grandmother. Oh, by the way according to Wikipedia,  must is “…a periodic condition in bull elephants, characterized by highly aggressive behavior, accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones…”

The piece is more like an extended performance poem than a traditional solo show. At barely 50 minutes long it is like a short nightclub set from a jazz master.  Peggy knows how to own a stage and she starts the show in the audience, talking casually, inviting us in. Her frequent use of the second person makes us, as the audience, a character in the show, we’re placed in intimate proximity to Peggy as she moves through her story.

It is hard to describe the experience – snippets of popular song interspersed with story interspersed with poetry  -we get this non-narrative slide through various experiences – giving birth on the way to Woodstock, falling and breaking her pelvis and two ankles, being examined by different physicians, the loss of a friend…. and it all kind of flows together. It makes me think a little of some of Jeannette Winterson’s more abstract writing.

Even thirty years on,  Peggy’s work is still experimental, it still feels like an exploration of the unknown. Though its tone is mellower and more subdued than the frenzied mechanical chaos many of us are used to, it still challenges and reverberates.  And her presence as a butch lesbian, someone who challenges notions of gender and identity, is still underrepresented on the stage.  And while others in the field may be making shout-y identity politics solo shows that give us TMI on their personal lives, Peggy remains a class act, a suave and debonair raconteur, knowing just how much to show and just how much to leave to the imagination.

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