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Chicago Arts Scene Commentary

for the Week of May 14, 2001

Theater Review:

The Aardvark’s "ESTROGEN FEST"

BY LUCIA MAURO

Framed by a heart-shaped doorway that doubles as a certain feminine organ, The Aardvark’s second annual "Estrogen Fest" has cultivated its own loving "Vagina Monologues." But this women-centered happening, which aims to celebrate the many sides of the double X persona, does more than just talk. It dances, features a movable art installation and takes on an evocative multimedia aura.

Judging by the standing-room-only crowd (including a high percentage of men) in Lakeview’s small sweltering Performance Loft on May 15, co-curators Ann Filmer and Joanie Schultz have generated considerable interest in the feminine mystique. Last year, "Estrogen Fest" followed a more traditional three-play format. Its latest incarnation has really expanded the boundaries of performance. Nevertheless, the festival – divided into two shows titled "Light Days" and "Heavy Flow" – could be more adventurous and less haphazardly structured.

Although one can argue that this casually organized showcase feels spontaneous, it also runs the risk of being sloppy and disjointed. Quirky segments, like Amy Fulgham’s lingerie/laundry-themed dance seems to fly out of left field, as do many of the dissonant transitions by the all-girl improvisational band, apartment.

During the "Heavy Flow" performance I attended, the most revelatory and emotionally charged works involved the spoken word. Marilyn Campbell led a moving and meditative invocation, featuring Beat poetess Diane di Prima’s "Ave," which set this eclectic evening of Venus-like vitality in motion.

Campbell’s softly stirring adaptation of Anne Sexton’s writings from "My Own Stranger" took on the shape of a string quartet (even featuring violinist Rebecca Blazer) as three actresses represented the pivotal moments in one woman’s quest for identity. Campbell – co-founder of the esteemed Writers Theatre in Glencoe – also performs in the piece, and her bright and measured performance makes one wish she wouldn’t stay away from the stage for so long. She is joined by the beautifully textured Heather Graff and kinetic Laurie Larson – all of whom weave a delicate aural tapestry of memory, hope and self-fulfillment under Jessica Thebus’ gracious direction.

Dancer-choreographer Nana Shineflug – founder and co-artistic of the Chicago Moving Company – opts for an original text-based solo piece highlighted by cleverly reimagined slides of her own vintage photographs. This forthright autobiographical reflection, "Nancy in the Dustpan," combines comic self-assurance with a bittersweet sense of regret.

Shineflug cleverly manipulates her costume to travel from a childhood crush to teen love, then marriage, family, an escape to hippiedom and a return to her true self – each segment beginning with stream-of-consciousness insights set into motion by the phrase, "I thought" or "I think." The artist comes full circle to conclude, "I think it’s all about loving; I think it’s all about love."

What doesn’t fare so well is Michael Bettencourt’s new play, "Fare Thee Well," about a slumber party thrown for a woman the night before she is scheduled for a mastectomy. A tentative cast fumbles its way through Bettencourt’s inane catalog of breast terminology, which cheapens the play’s unpredictably touching climax. Choreographer Cindy Brandle’s "Twisted Sisters" – a modern trio that debuted at Chicago’s Next Dance Festival – receives a greater intimacy when the dancers practically land in audiences’ laps. But this fantasy on the various aspects of girlish behavior still suffers from a lack of focus and compelling movement.

Yet, overall, the Aardvark has succeeded in creating quite a hormonal stir without alienating the testosterone set.•

"Estrogen Fest" runs May 22 ("Light Days") and May 29 ("Heavy Flow") at 8 p.m. at The Performance Loft in the Second Unitarian Church, 656 W. Barry. Tickets: $10-$12. Call 773-489-0843.

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