No Shrinking Flower

Deborah Louise Ortiz did not have an idyllic childhood. But in her sassy and poignant solo project Changing Violet, Ortiz—who both wrote and performs the piece—is a feisty force to be reckoned with. As Violet (her fictional alter ego), Ortiz outlines the years she spent growing up in the Bronx and Manhattan, where the only apparent constants were drugs and abuse. It's a perilous cycle, but Ortiz explores it with courageous honesty and conviction, deliberately locating other, more positive influences steadily humming in the background. To mitigate her heavy subject matter, Ortiz has framed her story within the makings of a disrupted fairy tale. When she first appears, she experiments with a more traditional opening. "Once upon a time," she intones, but then makes a face as if she's tasted something bitter. Instead, she divulges, "it all started with a song," as the strains of Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'" launch us into her memories.

Indeed, under the adept direction of Terri Muuss, Ortiz virtually dances through her life, although her beatific smile and smooth movements belie the often violent and disturbing subject matter that follows. As the episodic scenes unfold, an eclectic grab bag of tunes (from hard rock to "The Brady Bunch") pipe in as the action moves through time and location.

Clad in a clingy black top and pants, Ortiz plucks various items of clothing from a clothesline, effectively playing dress-up to suggest her age and situation at seminal moments in Violet's life. Among other incarnations, we meet a young Violet in pigtails earnestly penning a letter to Santa Claus, a teenaged and romantic Violet obsessed with Elvis Presley, and a 20-something Violet in thrall to drugs and alcohol, desperately trying to block out life's misery.

Throughout, Violet resists the sexual advances of her increasingly abusive and drug-addicted father while persistently urging her mother to remove her from his influence. In a particularly compelling scene, Violet prepares for her wedding. "I feel just like Cinderella," she says with a sigh, but her new abusive husband perpetuates the cycle, leaving the young bride—who has abandoned a budding acting career—alone to care for their baby.

Although a few scenes are thinly drawn, for the most part Ortiz negotiates her material with grace and vigor. However, repeated instances of substance use and abuse fail to register as sensational—merely witnessing these actions is no longer as troubling as observing their harrowing aftereffects. Furthermore, the abuse (emotional, physical, and sexual) that Violet suffers, while frequently alluded to, could be examined in greater detail.

It would also help to see more of Violet's passion for performing, where her personality shines through most freely. One of the strongest scenes depicts Violet's first audition, where a Latino theater company immediately casts her against racial type (she is Puerto Rican, and asked to portray someone who is not). Here, Ortiz reveals Violet's spirit, humor, and moxie. Allowing more of these qualities to emerge would make Violet more vibrant—more of an actor than a reactor to the events in her life.

Ortiz is a captivating performer, and her deep, husky voice frequently erupts into a sandpapery laugh that is both brittle and endearing. She is a weathered yet wistful presence, and her generous delivery has an undeniable undercurrent of danger. Ortiz—who went on to become a performer and a playwright—fearlessly harnesses the spirit of a powerful woman just this side of disaster.

"When I dance, it helps me to forget," Violet confides, and her gyrations propel her away from a string of fallen Prince Charmings (her father, a boyfriend, even Elvis) as she searches for the little girl she left behind. It's astonishing that she (and Ortiz!) has endured this veritable lifetime of definitive experiences, and all before the age of 30. Dangerous Curves Productions (of which Ortiz is a partner) is devoted to helping women find their voices in theater, and Changing Violet—happy ending or not—is an enlightening contribution to that quest.

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