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'Blown Sideways' an Angry, Funny Story of Hope

October 06, 1994|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Claudia Shear has been a brunch chef, a hat-check girl, a fake secretary for a guy pulling a con involving pens. She has been instructed "no phone calls," "no eating," "always give your name," "never, never give your name." She has held 64 jobs, and she has learned that "everyone has a story that can stop your heart." To prove it, she tells you one--her story. On Tuesday, "Blown Sideways Through Life," Shear's one-woman Off Broadway sensation, landed at the Coronet Theatre for a limited engagement.

Shear doesn't look much older than 30, so simple math will tell you that some jobs were of "unusually short duration"; one lasted as long as it took her to make a bunch of personal phone calls and say "(expletive) you!" to the manager at Bar Lui in New York.

In truth, she is a little angry. She cites a hilarious list of the things she said or would liked to have said to the cretins who bossed her around and treated her badly in a string of menial jobs. "A bad attitude?" she asks, in mock disbelief to one invisible employer. "You can't possibly imagine my (expletive) attitude!" And my favorite (the first sentence is spoken calmly; the second, enraged): "I'm sorry I don't know anything about pastry cream. Now let's have a conversation about all the things I know that you don't!"

But Shear is not simply a disgruntled worker, resentful of being told what to do. She possesses ultra-sensitive radar for dehumanizing behavior from people who have power over other people. And she understands this behavior as completely unnecessary. As a young runaway, overweight, poor and without connections, she was at the mercy of every whim, every insulting rule, every nasty corner that life can back you into. But she never, ever believed that she belonged there. Or at least, not for long.

Her most extended employment story is a tale about answering phones in a Manhattan whorehouse. Her descriptions of the women who worked there--and did not answer phones--is heartbreaking, though never sentimental. One woman dreams of being a dog groomer, and we sense the impossibility of her making even that simple dream ever come true. Also heartbreaking is Shear's admission that, as a 200-pound woman who always wore the same skirt, made of gray upholstery fabric (she called herself "the human sofa"), she was actually envious of the other women. "Men liked them," she explains.

When she loses that job she applies to another whorehouse. Walking down an empty corridor she sees a woman, fully dressed, lying on a bed, staring at the ceiling. That image of quiet despair drove her out of the whorehouse and into other, more healthful adventures.

*

So she squirreled away money and took dancing lessons, fencing lessons, Italian lessons, and eventually wound up in Rome, in a bizarre film directed by a Fellini manque. Along the way, there were other moments, defining moments, the rare job or person that made her feel valuable. There was the painter for whom she posed naked, who made her "not just pretty, like a girl at a table in Raoul's in a size six dress from Barneys" looking around to see who is watching her, but beautiful, like a woman in a painting.

It's the quintessential act of being looked at and recognized for one's true worth that clinches Shear's self-esteem, as it does for most of us. For Shear that moment comes during an Outward Bound survival trip, in the form of a remark made by her instructor that reverberated inside her and, one senses, will continue to throughout her life. In Shear's words, it was a moment when "someone shows you a portrait of yourself--clean, clear and totally unexpected."

Loy Arcenas' lovely set alludes to Shear's image of herself as a work of art, with a painterly backdrop and an oddly shaped artist's canvas behind the actress. Arcenas also supplies part of a theatrical red curtain that, under Christopher Akerlind's lights, looks as rich as if Degas had painted it. The lighting is extremely sensitive to the shifting moods of the piece. Christopher Ashley's direction must be credited for the seamless quality of the monologue and the fact that it never is boring.

It's a graceful setting for the story of an anonymous person who never forgets that she has something to say. And now she takes the ultimate revenge: She's saying it and saying it gloriously. More important, hers is a story of hope for others who might not yet have found that portrait of themselves--clean, clear and totally unexpected.

* "Blown Sideways Through Life," Coronet Theatre, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., Tuesday-Friday, 8 p.m., Saturday, 5 and 8 p.m., Sunday, 3 and 7 p.m. Ends Nov. 20. $32.50-$35. (310) 657-7377. Running time: 80 minutes.

j.f. Coronet Theatre Inc. and Pachyderm Entertainment present a New York Theatre Workshop production. Written and performed by Claudia Shear. Developed with and directed by Christopher Ashley. Set design by Loy Arcenas. Lighting design by Christopher Akerlind. Costume design by Jeff Goldstein. Sound design by Aural Fixation. Original music by Richard Peaslee. Dance created by Nafisa Sharriff. Production stage manager Kate Broderick.

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