New York performance artist Holly Hughes dropped into Highways in Santa Monica on Thursday night to deliver "World Without End." The piece is as deceptively casual as a chat in a luncheonette booth but liable to leak into moments of sly sexual humor, flatten out into bald preaching about causes or catch hold of delicious, free-floating extended metaphors.
Hughes' main themes--the lushness of sexual desire, the "otherness" of homosexuality, men's treatment of women, the gap between art and life--wove in and out of many narratives that started out somewhere in the Midwest and eventually glided into an updated Garden of Eden.
Her persona was a hybrid: a demure vixen in a red, off-the-shoulder dress. When she wasn't standing and gesturing in classic helpless-woman style--with her upper arms plastered against her sides--she was sashaying around in an I-am-Woman way or plunking herself down in demure-to-brazen postures on a red armchair or collapsing to her knees in a paroxysm of intoxication with the bad names people have called her.
But her great gift as a performer--other than superb pacing and her friendly alto voice--is her ability to convey volumes simply by peering sharply from under her blonde bangs and tightening up her chin in an I-know-what's-going-on-here way.
A quirky Midwestern reasonableness undercuts Hughes' wildest remarks. In one low-key sentence she links her mother's sexual pleasure in her own odor with the thought that "it made her a better gardener."
Her mother emerges as the strongest and clearest figure in the 1 1/2-hour monologue, clearly a woman of parts whose ribald qualities have a way of bursting through the banalities of housewife-talk. But even more telling than the actual stories are occasional deadpan lines like: "I have seen her tongue sneak out of her mouth to wet her lips while everyone else was watching TV."
That kind of sub rosa description of the language of the body becomes increasingly elaborate in the piece until it culminates in a gorgeous metaphor about a rain of apples falling outside a bedroom window. Wild and brilliant and a little difficult, the way all the best lyrical poetry is, such passages buffer the only dead spot in the piece--clearly a calculated risk--in which Hughes addresses the audience flatly about battered women and abortion.
Performances will be given again Thursday and Friday.