hair & fingernails from Orange Theatre Group at PHX:fringe

Phoenix Center for the Arts is right in the middle of building an elevator. It isn't finished yet, though, so please keep in mind that unless you can get up stairs somehow, you won't be able to attend any PHX:fringe performances that are scheduled in PCA's studio, which is on the building's third floor. (There is an electric lift on the first flight, so if you have one flight in you but not two, that will help.)

Orange Theater Group's hair & fingernails is the kind of show for which, I think, Fringe festivals exist. Although money and venues are scarce for all performing artists right now, the more experimental their work, the harder it is for them to get out there in front of people, and this show is waaaaaay experimental. If non-linear and unpredictable is your thing, you'll be all over it.

The sole female performer wears an unobtrusive body mic. This not only makes us able to hear her whispers, it becomes part of a technological audio-visual framework that gives the show layers of texture and permits some small miracles.

The space is, in "real life," a sound studio, with crenellated acoustic foam patches here and there on the walls. The black-and-white photos on the side walls, mostly of jazz legends, suggest that it's generally music groups who work out there when it isn't Fringe time -- rehearsing, learning, recording, what have you.

Built-in spotlights create an uneven, interesting light pattern, and bright lights from portable live streaming videocams add intensity here and there. A projection screen made of layers of loosely woven fabric hangs at one side, and you can also see video on a small screen on the tech booth/prop table.

So it's a tall, pale woman in yellow tights and an orange minidress, with long, dark hair and lots of eye makeup (which is especially helpful when she's on camera). There's a big white dropcloth on the floor, lots and lots of taped-down cables, a tray of flowering plants, a toilet, and cameras and microphones. That's about it.

She talks quickly and almost non-stop, in English most of the time, and in Spanish occasionally. Often, the monologue has no apparent connection to her actions or emotions, but virtually every word is clear. Some of the things we see and hear are repellent. Some are boring, but many are inexplicably compelling. Some are funny.

Water is a recurring motif. (Try to pee before the show.) So is the oppression of women. The company suggests in their promotional materials that classic and contemporary literature were among the performance's source materials, but the only source that jumped out at me was Antigone's burial of her brother's corpse. It's probably not supposed to be clear right off the bat, and different scraps of culture are likely to resonate with different audience members.

There are a lot of things to notice while you're at hair & fingernails. When I was there, the performer blew a smoke ring directly into one of the lights, and it hung over her like a luminous halo for what seemed like forever.

You might not have thought too much about how the mere act of recording human behavior seems to amplify and legitimize it; that premise is demonstrated clearly here. And that you're tempted to watch video even when there's a live person right in front of you.

There are also things to smell, which not every work of drama provides. Nothing too extreme -- but things like fresh soil and recently extinguished candles will get your right brain involved. (The cigarettes are the non-tobacco stage kind, and they don't seem to be the bad-smelling stage kind.)

A couple of things are made super-cool by the camera. At one point, the actress picks up a camera and snuggles it like a baby, cooing and talking into the lens in what you'd think would be a soothing manner. From the camera's (and therefore the baby's) point of view, though, mother's face is a huge, grotesque mask. (Maybe babies like that, or maybe they just learn to put up with it.)

Later on, the woman lip-syncs a cheesy European love song while crawling on the floor toward the camera. To the seated audience, she's not doing much, but from the camera's point of view, it's entertaining and very stylin'.

I can't say for sure how interesting this sort of performance art is to people who don't make art. But if you have a creative side, or if you just like new and different things, this is a good sample of the genre.

hair & fingernails continues through Sunday, March 11, at the Studio at Phoenix Center for the Arts, 1202 North Third Street. Admission is $10 at the door, or call 602-254-2151 or click here for tickets in advance. See the full PHX:fringe schedule here.

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Julie has written for the Night & Day events calendar section since 2005. As a student at Arizona State, she received the Glendon and Kathryn Swarthout Creative Writing Award and the Theatre Medallion of Merit.
Contact: Julie Peterson