Desiree Burch, Cara Francis and Erica Livingston offer no greater proof of the daring and immediacy to be found in New York theater than in their current work, The Soup Show. The three are part of the New York Neo-Futurists. The Neo-Futurists (or “Neos,” as they refer to themselves) are a group of self-actualized performance artists. Their mission is to create “a world in the theater which has no pretense or illusion,” with no suspension of disbelief. A prop doesn’t substitute for something else, and they use their own names rather than portraying character. In other words, to paraphrase La Cage Aux Folles, they are exactly who they are.
And who they are in Soup, sharply directed by Lauren Sharpe, are three confident and comfortable women, sharing themselves with an audience. Be warned: there is nudity, and plenty of it. From start to finish, pretty much, we see Burch, Francis and Livingston nude onstage. Yet this nudity is in no way offensive or shocking, In fact, after merely a few minutes, one is too busy listening to what the women have to say to be distracted by what they are – or are not – wearing.
Soup is essentially a variety act, a review of sketches tied together by the notion of female solidarity and resilience. At the evening’s commencement, all audience members are handed out pencils and instructed to sketch one of the three actresses. It’s a powerful move, and defines the difference between being naked and being nude – the former is vulnerable and the latter has power. They claim their appearance before the audience before anyone in the audience has the chance to feel embarrassed.
At the center of the stage, not to mention the show itself, is a big hot tub that the three women periodically enter but more often add various items from the evening into. Soup itself is a bouillabaise of stories taken from the performers’ own lives as well as interviews and images put forth by the media.
For instance, Livingston shares her personal feelings about the battles in raising her stepdaughter and the lessons she wishes for her to learn. At the same time, she creates recipe and tries to catch ingredients like eggs and flour into a mixing bowl – this could look somehow sloppy or misguided, but Livingston’s and Sharpe’s touch makes it both personal and a perfectly theatrical way to present how messy parenthood can be for anyone. (You can bet that those ingredients will also find their way into the hot tub.)
Throughout Soup, the performers intermittently quote from sources’ thoughts about women. While one reads, another holds a magnifying glass up against various parts of the readers’ body. One way to view this is that even when women are recounting one’s thoughts, their physicality will always also be under the microscope. All three performers are sublime, and it should be said, work so well together I found myself thinking of the three women as one cohesive unit rather than three separate actresses.
Sharpe’s show is both slick and substantive, moving at a fast clip but never too fast for the audience to process the humor and the emotions that have just been introduced. And while much of the show is deeply personal, it’s also raucously fun. Burch invites a man onstage and shaves half of his face. And in what is sure to be the evening’s most talked-about sequence, Francis demonstrates a special talent she has honed over time.
This combination of deep thought and crudity meshes together perfectly. It allows the show’s three stars to embrace who they are in their entirety. No one can ever be summed up by one simple description, or even a few. Soup explores how each person is a mash of complications and contradictions. One of this show’s key strengths is that beyond supporting any feminist perspective, it espouses a human one.
Another heavy moment of the show occurs when Burch strips down the notion of what motherhood can mean. This perceptive monologue is immediately, followed, however, by a request for anyone in the audience to step onstage and give them a hug. Who wouldn’t want to?