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Hughes Tells Personal Story With Humor


At one point in her coming-of-age monologue "Cat O'Nine Tales," Holly Hughes states that she would not be an artist if she were not a lesbian.

And yet that statement is shown to be improbable in Hughes' funny, roving one-woman show, a look backward to her childhood. Six years ago, the performance artist achieved almost symbolic stature for being denied a National Endowment for the Arts grant (along with three others) because her frankly homosexual work was deemed offensive, apparently, to the fabric of American society. Perhaps she should say she would not be symbolic if she were not a lesbian.

The tale that she tells at Highways in Santa Monica, though of course about sexuality, is really the tale of any child who feels a stranger in her own family, who must venture out into the great big world to find like-minded souls. It doesn't matter that for many people, such venturing does not include going to the first "double-X rated party for women" you find on a flyer the minute you hit the big city, in Hughes' case, New York.

Directed by Dan Hurlin, the short evening begins with Hughes, back to audience, simulating a make-out session in which her partner--represented by Hughes' hands fondling her own body--is touching her lightly, trying to convince her that less is more. There and then Hughes defines her credo of sex and of life. "No. More is more. Only more is more."

Then we are back in Hughes' hometown, Saginaw, Mich., the place in which this view of life was first formed. The time is the 1960s--"or at least it is somewhere else"; the '60s didn't arrive in Saginaw, according to Hughes, until about 1979.

Hughes felt suffocated by her summers at Christian Leadership Camp and by a town where you were expected to turn into your parents at the first available moment. She recalls: "My mother hangs her wedding dress in my bedroom closet; I can hear it scratching at night."

With a saucy haircut, haunted eyes and a satirist's penchant for slight exaggeration, Hughes recalls being a responsible girl, imagining she could be the person to set all of the household ills aright. When she was 12, she knew she had to become the father--not the literal father, "the man who crawled out of his room at twilight to eat whatever we put out for him," she says. "I'm gonna be the father we needed."

She skips lightly over the big horrors, like finding her father in bed with her sister and being angry that he didn't choose her. On a trip in the backseat of the family car, she recalls the family as "four slices of American cheese individually wrapped in their own sorrow." They drive past a sign for "the mystery spot," a natural marvel the child longs to visit. But it is not on the family's itinerary. In Hughes' imagination, she commandeers the car and takes it off into her future, to find the mystery spot that will satisfy all of the yearnings deemed unimportant, or worse, in Saginaw.

At the end, Hughes takes a minute to thank the audience for listening and to say what her art means to her. Evoking both her similarity to, and her break with, her mother's world, she says she feels about her art the way her mom's bridge club felt about Tupperware: "It's not fancy, but it's a good container." Told with self-awareness and without self-importance, "Cat O'Nine Tales" fulfills that description.

* "Cat O'Nine Tales," Highways, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica, Fri.-Sun. only, 8:30 p.m. $12. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 60 minutes.

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