You'd never guess 55-year-old Peggy Shaw's Obie-winning one-woman show is about, as she puts it, "the sadness and loneliness of being an elder in the middle of the night." There's nothing old about Menopausal Gentleman. Standing on a bare stage, in the hot white light of a single spot, Shaw struts, stomps and dances -- with her arms flying, her big, ballsy heart on her sleeve and her head thrown way back in a wild and childlike defiance of middle age and its indignities.
Peggy Shaw has been all about defiance for quite some time. She learned the basics of her performance style back in the early '70s when she joined a troupe of drag queens who called themselves Hot Peaches. Working on the streets of New York and then in Europe, she learned a sort of energetic, in-your-face kind of excess. When she got back to New York she joined the feminist Spiderwoman Theater, and from it she learned "subtlety."
The master gender-bender is an adoring grandmother, but she has passed as a man, whether she has wanted to or not, for much of her life. On stage she completely inhabits and makes real the show's one and only character: a tough-talking New York "gentleman" who walks though the audience reveling in an ironic talk-sing version of Sinatra's My Way and taking the time to pause for pretty women. This character is, after all, a fine flirt who "likes the ladies."
But sometimes, when the light is just so, another being emerges from the "rusty face" on stage. In the shadows lurks the wise and lovely heart of a woman who has lived a deeply felt life that includes work, marriage, children, political rage, divorce, travel, love, sex and enormous changes. Then suddenly Shaw's adjusting her tie just so, slicking back the sides of her boy-short hair and adjusting her britches. She's sauntering about the stage, howling and whispering with a sliding, sly grin about all the "images and fantasies" that generated the show.
On night: "It's 4 a.m. They call it the Hour of the Wolf, the dangerous time. It's not night, and it's not morning: Tiger Time. I never go out at that hour 'cause I could slip right through and disappear forever. I can't sleep. I'm all wet."
On sex: "Like Tina Turner, I'm gonna start real slow and then I'm gonna get rough. Touch you on the cheek, brush my hand lightly on your lips, kiss your shoulder after I pull your sweater down and pin you against the wall making sure you feel the cold wall against your shoulders as I kiss them. Go down on my knees...."
On sweat: "Zip me up. Mop me.... Like a furnace on the inside. Sweating in the cold. My shirt is wringing wet. My back is dripping all the way to the waist. Like an outline. Of sweat. Licking my hand."
Out of the darkness spill the sounds of Nina Simone, Southern blues and Sinatra. Then, with her hat pushed back and a glint in her eye, Shaw swaggers her way into the hearts of the audience with a joke: "They say a lot of women get like men in menopause 'cause they grow a beard and get dried out," she says. "I guess that's their definition of man: a hairy, dried-up woman."
-- Lee Williams
Peggy Shaw performs Menopausal Gentleman Friday and Saturday, May 21 and 22, at 8 p.m. at DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway, (713)228-0914. $20; $15, students and seniors.