Off the Cuff

Ruth Zaporah proves that preparation isn't always best.

Leery of lame comedy sketches duct-taped together in the name of improvisational theater? Weary of angst-y performance art? These are not Ruth Zaporah's shtick. Zaporah's shtick is improvisation sharpened like a knife blade: edgily balanced risks on a tightrope without a net, melding seamlessly into well-seasoned, generous thematic


development. Humor arises naturally along the curve of her shapely performance, as well as a broad range of surprises. Zaporah's energy percolates, radiates, shimmers, sings and rages, consistently brought to spine and focus by her masterful technique. Using a voice variously gossamer, stentorian, eerie, earthy and of startling appeal in combination with a trained actor's face and a physique as labile as a cartoon character's, Zaporah shape-shifted her way through a 60-minute tour de force last Saturday.

Born of modern dance (under the tutelage of Merce Cunningham, Alvin Nikolais and Martha Graham) and the theater and movement experiments of the '60s, Zaporah probably has plenty of pretense she could indulge in. The self-seriousness of improvising theater artists and of so-called performance artists in general is legendary. Leaden, message-laden agitprop or meandering, bloodless irony that has all the entertainment value of visiting one's insurance agent is often the result. Experiencing Zaporah's moment-to-moment discoveries, on the contrary, is witnessing art and entertainment in fine balance. She embodies play that's dead serious.

Zaporah's performance this time (every show is different and completely improvised) started with her sitting stock-still at the back of a once-in-a-lifetime set: the CCA warehouse crammed full of donated knick-knacks, paintings, sculptures, picture frames, "decoratives"-all the appearance of the flotsam and jetsam of culture. The vast sea of arty detritus made the perfect setting. Starting out with eerie, wispy gestures reminiscent of Grandma's ghost in the attic, Zaporah (with a clip-on microphone and improvised sound manipulation in the booth) slowly made her way through the aisles. Her "characters" were at first primal: befuddled angels, hubris-addled Thag-like egomaniacs, doddering children, each one formed only to be left behind, a range of archetypal masks.

The impression at first was that the entire show would consist of edgy gestural and vocal abstractions. Stranger things have happened in the name of art. The fine tuning between Zaporah's body and her voice, and her paradoxically looming presence in the huge


CCA warehouse space, surrounded by the clutter of ruthless acquisition, made it seem like it just might work if her performance consisted entirely of these outré expressionisms.

The otherworldly, however, became worldly as Zaporah began to intone the first words of her piece: "I want. I want." Right as this got to the edge of artsy futzing, she landed squarely on her feet, saying, "I want…I want…a vacation." Thus began a kaleidoscopic journey through character after character, the ego's dance of masked forms, each character inspired at first by an intention, growing inflated, then logy and lost in ideas, plans, half-measures and frustrated designs, disintegrating finally into a pale, pulverized atomization. The disintegration of each successive "I" was not malicious, although it was often ripe with humor. In each case, the push of intention inevitably met the folly of human control strategies, but Zaporah maintained compassionate attunement to these repeated failures of the will.

The overall impression was of a satire of desire itself, not bitter in the least, as if Zaporah had composed a comic ode to the entire enterprise of making plans. "My goal is to balance my instinct for spontaneity with my reverence for form," says Zaporah, and her thoroughly coherent, completely improvised artistry danced skillfully with that rare balance.

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