Split Britches was founded by Lois Weaver, Peggy Shaw and Deb Margolin in New York, 1980 and transformed the landscape of queer performance with vaudevillian satirical gender-bending performance. They create new forms by exploiting old conventions and borrow from classical texts and popular myths, but their true sources are the details of everyday life.
One of the most interesting ideas in the mix in this work - for me at least - is the limits of memory and its relationship to time. So I’ve waited two days before writing this review in an effort to create my own perspective through distance, and to see what has lasted. I spent the time in between reading about memory (and, y’know, enjoying Sunday). One of my favourite quotes comes from the popular neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks who gets to the heart of the thing pretty quickly: “Memory systems have fallibilities, frailties, and imperfections — but also great flexibility and creativity.” I think that rings true in this piece.
Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw are Split Britches. For their performance as part of Live Collision they stand on an empty stage in Project Arts Centre and explain what’s to come. Lois is now sixty-eight and Peggy is seventy-three. “Being the ages we are now,” Peggy explains “we have some perspective… Hence the name of the show.” Retro(per)spective is billed as a ‘medley of extracts’ from the archives of their decades-long creative collaboration. But I think that’s underselling it. As they introduce themselves to us it is the liveness in their warm and generous ad-libbing that sticks; they are so confident in their comedy that we relax into capable hands. But I also find myself drawn into the tension sitting underneath. There’s a nervousness wrapped in charm, because older bodies do whatever they want sometimes. They’re harder to trust. And stepping into their past selves for this show, can they trust their memory? Maybe the opening holds a clue… Lois Weaver charges through lines all starting with the refrain 'You never told me', attributing them to audience members. She climbs past people, sits on their knees, bends in really close to take their photo, and says to one woman “You never told me... you’d like to make a list of all the things you believe in, but you can’t remember.” I enjoy this. I enjoy how formally and playfully they have reached through the fourth wall to meet us, their audience. And I’m with them as they try to remember all the past work they believe in still.
When we watch Weaver and Shaw in Retro(per)spective we see two women in duet with their younger selves. One scene - with projected footage from their archive of work - shows a 30something Shaw. She’s in a ball gown, moving with the lithe, seductive, cliched gestures of a femme fatale, wriggling on top of a table. Watching live we see the older Shaw (who, it must be said, is still handsome in her horn-rimmed glasses and slick suit) replicating these gestures. Standing on top of the table warrants a moment of celebration because the effort to get up and down are so different in this older body. She chases her younger self, mimicking the original scene in which her character chases Weaver, who is mimicking in turn the lip-synch of an old movie from the 40s. These layers sit in harmony for me. All of the ideology and subversion in their original performance is apparent - challenging the gender politics of popular narratives - but joined here by the tragicomedy of age, of a much frailer body attempting the same slapstick almost forty years later. It becomes a comment on the physical change and an acknowledgement of the distance that one person has travelled between then and now. It occurs to me too, how easily older female bodies are edited from the stage. How rare to see a play with two women over sixty.
In other moments Shaw and Weaver are in duet with one another in the present. Arguing, as people who have known each other a long time will, about the little stupid things that have been irritating them since they arrived in Dublin. It culminates in this moment: “Go out the door of Project Arts Centre,” instructs Shaw to a faux-fuming Weaver, “Turn left. No Right. Turn right, then left. Walk over the Ha’penny bridge. Jump into the Liffey. And keep going.” Weaver leaves in a storm and the lights dim. Left alone onstage Shaw bends forward and after a few moments sits back up. She smiles, “This is the part where I do a monologue about how I love her like I love fluorescent lights,” she tells us, “But I read it off my phone and I’ve forgotten my phone.” This injection of reality into a construction of their relationship, sometimes difficult, sometimes filled with love, is another example of the truthfulness in performance that I remember.
Sacks notes “To be ourselves we must have ourselves – possess, if need be re-possess, our life-stories. We must 'recollect' ourselves, recollect the inner drama, the narrative, of ourselves. A (wo)man needs such a narrative, a continuous inner narrative, to maintain [her] identity, [her] self.”* Watching Retro(per)spective there is little doubt that Split Britches are in possession of themselves. As difficult as it must be to look back and see you have travelled most of your road, these two find humour, art and pathos in creating the next moment of their story together. In this way the work is deeper than a simple nostalgia or ‘medley of extracts’. It’s a stratification of various stages of their creative evolution. The pieces laid out simultaneously and often hilarious. It is playful and honest, and ends with a pie in the face. As Sacks puts it “Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.” For those friendships and collaborations that endure and enrich for decades, there must be a sweetness in the opportunity to open up old boxes to find new ideas. The play ends with the images of those audience members photographed by Weaver in the opening projected on screen. She comments on the loss of privacy in any public context these days. And, as they scroll, away those faces go, into the Split Britches archive, new memories to be stored and reimagined somewhere down the line.
Maeve for DRAFF
*Pronouns challenged by the writer.
Retro(per)spective played at Project Arts Centre, Dublin, on the 22nd April 2017 as part of Live Collision International Festival 2017: Part 1. Image: Split Britches
Posted: 25th April 2017.