Theater allows us to see people at their most vulnerable. In a live performance, anything can happen: lines can be forgotten, injuries can occur and things can always go wrong. Yet Ruff, by Peggy Shaw, reminds us how meaningful that vulnerability can be. We attend the theater to connect on a human level. Shaw invites us into her harrowing experience, giving us the chance to mourn, laugh, and love, along with her. In this, it is precisely what theater should — and even must — be to maintain relevance in an increasingly mediatized world.
In this one-person show, Shaw tells stories about her life, particularly her recent experiences surrounding and as consequence of her stroke. Medical dramas have the potential to be maudlin, but this production is transcendent. She finds not only the profundity but also the absurd humor in her, and our, human condition. At every turn, as witness to her trauma and triumph, it is hard to know whether to life or cry. This feeling is situated precisely at the crossroads of the ridiculous and the sublime, like so much of our experience of being alive.
She links her physical condition to deep philosophical ideas, making poetry out of even her darkest tales. Shaw expertly draws connections between what has happened to her and events that may seem far afield from one person’s stroke. She muses about family, memory, community and technology. This last thematic element is key; the entire aesthetic of the theater links this intimately personal theatrical piece with our technologized world via television and projection screens.
Shaw does not shy away from her potential problems performing; rather, she brilliantly delights in them, drawing attention to them from the show's start. The choice of Shaw and collaborator Lois Weaver to provide the performer with her text via television screens on stage is brilliant. It works both to guide Shaw through the meandering, stream-of-conscious monologue while acting as subtle commentary on the presence of memory in a world in which everything is digitally recorded.
Shaw allows this theme of mind and memory to evoke the spirits of her great downtown forbears and contemporaries in the space of La MaMa's First Floor Theatre. Facing her own mortality makes Shaw face how many have been lost before her and what traces they have left behind. What is left when a live performance ends? Is a recording of that performance the thing itself or is it only in our untrustworthy memories that the plays of old reside?
This play addresses such grand questions without providing clear-cut answers, as theater is the place to ask, not necessarily explain. In its depth, Ruff is a slap-in-the-face reminder about the brevity and ephemerality of life. However, in its jokes, quips and witticisms, it is proof that it is only through humor that we can truly represent what it means to be human. And, in her bravery of being live in the theater with her audiences and her mind's images simultaneously, Shaw has created a piece of theater not to be missed.
Ruff runs from Jan. 9-26 at the La MaMa First Floor Theater on 74A East 4th Street. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at lamama.org. Adult tickets: $20; Students/Seniors: $15.