A Theater’s ‘Last Gasp’ Doesn’t Look Like the End
As Split Britches, Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver have made off-kilter theater for 40 years. Memory loss, and a pandemic, haven’t stopped their creating.
By Elisabeth Vincentelli
Back in March, Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver, of the theater duo Split Britches, were in Britain, developing a new show, when Covid-19 exploded. It made more sense to stay put than to scamper back home to New York, which looked pretty scary at the time. Weaver, who has spent part of the year in London for nearly two decades, teaching performance at Queen Mary University, had a shared place there, but Shaw’s accommodations across town were an issue.
Luckily, neighbors of Weaver’s volunteered an empty house they had been planning to gut-renovate.
“There was electricity, heat, running water and one chair,” Weaver, 71, said, describing the London house in a recent video call from the Catskills. Recounting the experience, she said friends and fellow theater-makers had donated furniture, and someone who was moving to a nursing home gave them kitchen equipment. “We got her toaster, microwave, plates — which we brought back to New York because we love them so much,” Weaver said.
In that otherwise bare house, the two women — “Peggy and I are an off-again-on-again couple,” Weaver noted; their complicity during the joint interview was obvious — resumed work on “Last Gasp,” the new show they were meant to perform at New York’s La MaMa in April and London’s Barbican in June 2020.
The dates ended up being canceled, like all dates, but “Last Gasp WFH” (for Working From Home) was created and recorded on Zoom. Weaver directed and the two women handled the sound and lighting themselves, with the help of a remote team that included technical designers and a choreographer.
The resulting hybrid of theater, movement and video — Shaw, 76, called it a Zoom movie, or “Zoomie” — is not just one of the 40-year-old company’s best pieces, but among the most evocative art to emerge from the Covid era; it is streaming on the La MaMa website until Dec. 5.
The title, which came early in the process, proved premonitory.
“We were looking at the backdrop of climate change, the integration of our aging process, Peggy saying it was going to be her last show, the last gasp of democracy, maybe,” Weaver said. “Then we found ourselves in a pandemic, where you couldn’t breathe, and in a civil unrest that was symbolized by ‘I can’t breathe.’
“And then we found ourselves in a house that was also in its last gasp,” she added. “We had no idea these things would come together in that way when we named the show over a year ago.”
That is a lot to unpack, yet “Last Gasp WFH” is remarkably light on its feet. For starters, the 90-minute piece looks effortlessly striking because Weaver and Shaw position themselves perfectly within the frame, coming up with almost painterly compositions. “We have a spatial awareness that we obviously bring to our theater and performance,” Weaver said, “but maybe being able to see ourselves in the frame had something to do with it.”
The fleet, surprisingly entertaining movie is alternately playful, surreal, pointed and poignant, and its nonlinear scenes incorporate many of Split Britches’ calling cards: autobiography, sly humor, pop-culture references (Bill Withers to Beyoncé) and questioning of gender.
This makes Weaver’s matter-of-fact mention that the project would be Shaw’s last performance all the more bittersweet. Shaw has long been a singular presence on the American theater scene, a butch lesbian who has regularly explored her identity in such pieces as “Menopausal Gentleman.”
Then again, “Peggy has said this is her last show since we started working together 40 years ago,” Weaver said, laughing. “This is her coping mechanism.”
Yes, but what if she really means it now? “For whatever reason, if it’s the last one, I feel really happy that it exists in this form and that it’s manifested itself in this way,” Weaver said. “I feel really pleased with the way it is.”
Shaw, who was just off-camera, piped in: “We’ll make another movie.” (She and Weaver were calling from their Catskills house; they also each have a studio in Manhattan’s East Village.)
“Peggy, you can come and sit here,” Weaver reminded her, before reorienting the laptop so Shaw could be onscreen. “I knew this was going to happen,” she added dryly, clearly aware her charismatic, witty accomplice would not be able to remain quiet for long.
Shaw, who had a stroke in 2011 (a setback she explored in the solo show “Ruff”), can’t memorize lines anymore. In “Last Gasp WFH,” she wears big headphones to listen to the words Weaver feeds her during monologues.
There is no attempt to hide what’s going on.
“I couldn’t fit little headphones into my ears because I already have hearing aids,” Shaw said. “Johnnie Ray had a big hearing aid in the 1950s in order to perform,” she continued, referring to a partially deaf singer whom she name-checks in the piece.
“The other thing is, that was the only pair of headphones we had. Like, we just wore black [in the movie] because we didn’t have anything with us from the show, except the yellow slicker and the yellow boots, in case it rained or something.”
In scenes they shared, Weaver couldn’t also be reading out Shaw’s lines. So they scrawled them on paper and taped the pages to a wall.
“We were trying to act a scene we adapted from ‘Marriage Story,’” Weaver said, alluding to the Noah Baumbach film about a divorcing couple. “It’s such an iconic fight between two people, and the subject was the same one that we have: We have had affairs and fights about it. We have conflicts over the fact that Peggy gets awards and I don’t, even though we work together.”
In many ways, “Last Gasp WFH” feels like a culmination for Split Britches — even though it’s not in the company’s usual medium. “We know and trust our methods now,” Weaver explained. “And in this case, we had the opportunity to fine-tune them in ways that we don’t often get to fine-tune them on the stage. I don’t think we know how to do anything else.”
Last Gap WFH
Available on demand through Dec. 5; lamama.org
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