For anyone who does not know who Peggy Shaw is, she is a multiple award winning queer performance artist and activist based in the US who started performing in the later 1970s and in the early 1980s with Lois Weaver (who also co-wrote and directs Ruff) she co-founded the company Split Britches. I can understand that, for some, the words ‘ performance artist and activist’ might not immediately suggest a fun night out. However, if Peggy and Lois’s work is experimental and politically engaged it is also playful, disarming, seductive, genuinely funny and utterly accessible. In short, they are shows you want to take home and live with, and Ruff is no exception-well worth the journey to World’s End.
At one point in Ruff Peggy says there are three things that caused the stroke she suffered in January 2011, or when as she puts it ‘a deadly finger of ice’ struck ‘the sea floor of her brain’. Actually, during the course of the show she suggests some other possible causes (arrogance- too much coffee, not enough coffee) but these three main ones are: i) according to a dream Peggy had on the morning of the death of her close friend Ellen Stewart (founder of New York’s legendary La Mama Theatre) Stewart’s determination to take Peggy ‘with her’ ii) ‘too many lights in my eyes’ throughout her life (spoken, of course, looking into the theatre lights shining in her eyes) and iii) a brief fragment of home cinefilm that shows her at 14 years old wearing a green dress, walking jauntily uphill towards the camera.
There is an immediate connection between i) and iii) in so far as Peggy tells us that Stewart was exceptionally superstitious about the colour green and would never have it on a set. Ruff features a green screen backdrop which is used to project images of the show’s band and motion capture images of Peggy’s own movement, and while this show is dedicated to Stewart’s memory, this screen signifies ‘defiance’ of her ‘classic Scorpio’ post- mortem bossiness (as represented by Peggy’s dream).
There may also be a connection between ii) and iii) since the film clip shows a moment where 14 year old Peggy apparently becomes ‘aware’ of the camera and so arguably, stops simply ‘being herself’ and starts ‘performing herself’. However, if watching it Peggy is surprised (as a long time famous, men’s suit wearing, butch) that she ‘looks so much like a girl’, on the two times we are shown this clip I am surprised that to my eyes the dress looks blue not green at all. This is perhaps due to the decaying film stock but it means that the greenness of the dress is partly a matter of Peggy’s memory of this garment, which is of course one of the things significantly affected by the stroke.
On some level, the capricious nature of this affect is what this show is ‘about’ in terms of both its theme and its structuring, literally and metaphorically. Three mobile video monitors are part of the set, show certain key images and are part of the overall choreography of the piece but are also necessary to prompt Peggy who now struggles to learn her words, although noticeably she does not have this problem when singing.
While Peggy and Lois’s work has always been episodic and fragmented and worked through the associative and juxtaposition rather than that the linear and ‘logical’, Ruff sometimes seems to exaggerate these qualities almost at times operating through ‘jump cuts’. Understanding the show as a sort of virtual tour of Peggy’s post stroke brain these ‘jumps’ marks the ‘gaps’ where things (and people) have been lost. In this terrain, memories expressed in the form of anecdotes about her family and friends, verbal imagery, jokes, songs (or rather ‘numbers’) dart in and out of view unpredictably, following their own peculiar patterns and currents. In a sense then, like Ellen Stewart in Peggy’s dream, Ruff attempts to pull the audience ‘after Peggy’, to convey what it is like to have/have had – and importantly to recover- from a stroke, if that is -you are a butch grandmother who is still one of the sexiest and most engaging women on stage (ever) who has a sense of humour and a love of lounge singers.
Paralleling a story Peggy tells about trying to cook a thanksgiving turkey having dropped a tab of acid, the impact of all this is sometimes very funny, sometimes uncanny, hallucinatory and destabilising. Peggy does a version of the ‘Hokey Pokey’ (sic) performed in the style of an overexcited rock star that is also a ‘public service announcement’ with audience participation about how to recognise signs of a stroke. Later she does an impersonation of Marlon Brando doing part of ‘the horror, the horror’ speech from Apocalypse Now. This sounds comic but actually in the context of some of the shows darker material takes on a new set of serious and powerful meanings. These are consolidated by the fact that this sequence is immediately followed by a stunning moment when a projected ‘full moon’ slowly passes over Peggy’s body. This image both connects to that film and to the start of Ruff when Peggy recreated an image from one of her previous show’s, that was itself a recreation of a photo by the famous 1940s murder scene photographer Weegee, where she lies in a circle of light with one shoe off. If as Peggy tells, after the stroke the same phrase (such as ‘make a ham sandwhich, make a ham sandwhich, make a ham sandwhich’) will repeat in her head throughout the night, Ruff also loops back on itself, albeit this is repetition with a difference.
She leaves the stage with two large inflatable fish floating in the air and an ironic joke where she compares herself to South Park’s ‘Captain Hindsight’ but one of the pictures that keeps repeating in my head is of the home cinefilm clip. Due either to degradation of the stock or perhaps deliberate treatment, when this starts up there are several seconds when the image of 14 year old Peggy seems to undergo a violent struggle to take shape from out of the darkness of the screen. Later on her attention seems to be caught dramatically and forcibly by something out of frame, like a slap, and the whole thing jumps. Then she carries on walking towards the camera, breezily. At these points this film somehow seems prophetic, carrying a message to the future Peggy that she forgot. Perhaps it was Ellen Stewart giving a superstitious forewarning about the colour green?