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Plain and Pleasure

One-woman trilogy chronicles its author's path from Mennonite to New York actress

Elisabeth Hess relives her move away from the Mennonite faith and toward the theater, among other things.

By John Barry | Posted 5/6/2009

Living Openly and Notoriously

By Elizabeth Hess

At Theatre Project through May 10

Mennonites don't touch unless it's purposeful. Elizabeth Hess tells you that in "Birth Rite," the first portion of her three part memoir/monologue, Living Openly and Notoriously. By the end of this fascinating journey, it's one aspect of the Mennonite faith from which she rarely wanders. No touch, no brush, no lick of the acid blotter, no auto-erotic stimulation goes by without her delving into the purpose and meaning of the act.

In the second portion, "Descent," Hess applies that fact to the act of writing her memoir. In one scene, she sits at a table, phoning a somewhat distracted agent, who has a great deal on her plate and another caller on hold, when Hess starts gobbling up her memoirs. Literally. She stuffs her page after page into her mouth, chews, pulls them out, and starts piling them on the table. Why pretend to type your memoirs onstage--an annoying device--when you can actually eat them in real time?

There's no pretense at all in Living Openly and Notoriously. With her table and her chair, on a bare stage, Hess shows how scary, bizarre, and beautiful a memory can be when it's brought back. And Hess' memories are, indeed, unique. She grew up the daughter of a Mennonite minister in Toronto. She wandered from the herd during her teenage years and she eventually winds up an actress in New York. Her three-part story gradually deals with larger-than-life parents, her own escape from their repressive faith, and her evolution as an artist.

Great material, you might say; take it on the road. Well, despite the possibilities, Hess doesn't exploit her background. There is a Mennonite/slut dualism there, but Hess isn't mining it for laughs or entertainment--that's been done. Living is very much a journey, a portrait of an artist, who, arguably, inherits the intense longing for purpose that drove her parents and ancestors in their Mennonite faith. Only she's searching for meaning in her own body and desires.

In that voyage, nothing is abstract. In one memorable scene, she discovers, in a very physical way--think Madonna and the crucifix--the joys of the hardbound hymnal. It sets the tone for the entire work: Every story that gets told is a story of physical contact, no matter how "spiritual" or theological it might seem at first.

And although Hess wanders from the Mennonite fold in this story, she doesn't do it with bitterness. She appears to welcome the friction created by the boundaries between the faith and the outside world. The resulting energy becomes impossible for her to control. And Hess' writhing, sometimes exhausting performance is more in search of a rhythm than a more compact performance would be.

As she's taking you through these endless transformations, it's hard to stop and think that this could, in essence, be part of what takes theater into the 21st century. Living is a story that could only be told as it's experienced. It's an attempt to take a patchwork of emotions and energies and somehow place them into one quilt. The quilt gets awkward, and the colors don't always match, but Hess seems to relish the irregularities and the weirdness of it all. And instead of reciting lines, she wants to chew through the somewhat awkwardly phrased language itself.

She alludes to that relationship briefly in the third section, "At/One," as she describes a moment of self-consciousness during a performance in which her language seemed overly elaborate and "ornate." Her baroque, ethereal use of language contrasts sharply, even bizarrely, with the intense physicality of her material. At points, she seems to be scrambling for wiggle room, just as she tries to find freedom from the "ancestral ghosts" that she describes haunting her.

Living is a one-person show worth attending as long as you know what to expect. It doesn't have the cerebral improvisations of Spalding Gray's legendary shows, or the snappy familiarity of Lisa Kron. Hess is a skilled actress who has the energy and the thoughtfulness required to absorb an audience into the material, and as such Living isn't really merely a one-person show. It's a voyage through a world of strange bonds and dark secrets. Hess' acting, however, doesn't get in the way of her essential mission. With naive, somewhat childlike curiosity, she's trying to make sense of her life.

The three-part series is about five hours in total. Since there are three separate parts to the performance, there's potential confusion for any potential ticket-buyer. Each portion stands alone on its own merits, but I recommend checking out "Birth Right" first. Regardless, when you leave Hess' performance, you'll agree that, in an age where reality comes with quotation marks, you've just seen theater in real time: unpretentious, unadorned, and right there in front of you.

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