Review: In Last Gasp: A Recalibration, Split Britches Sputters Some Parting Words
"Think of this as an estate sale," Peggy Shaw says of her latest show, the somewhat morbidly named Last Gasp: A Recalibration. Shaw is one half of the duo Split Britches (the other half is Lois Weaver, who performs and directs). They've been creating theater with a playfully subversive lesbian perspective since 1980, and Shaw admits she's tired: The 78-year-old can't memorize her lines after suffering a stroke, she's bewildered by all the new orthodoxies that have arisen around cultural creation, and she can no longer get enthusiastic about the 50 (or fewer) audience members who bother to turn up at La MaMa's Ellen Stewart Theatre. It's safe to say that she's not exactly giving 75 percent, and she would like to give less.
Perhaps that explains the heavy air of exhaustion surrounding this show. But, like a true estate sale, you are likely to find something of value if you look hard enough.
Last Gasp: A Recalibration is the live adaptation of Last Gasp WFH, the film Shaw and Weaver created with Nao Nagai, Vivian Stoll, and Morgan Thorson during the early stages of the pandemic. Weaver and Shaw present dueling monologues (the former live onstage and the latter appearing only through video until the final scene). Both actors occasionally stumble over their lines and Shaw makes no attempt to conceal the fact that hers are being fed to her (we can hear the echo of Weaver's voice in the background of her videos). Remarkably, some dramatic tension remains as the two performers seem to be indirectly arguing, like two friends posting pointedly vague Facebook updates.
"I only talk about white singers now," says Shaw, internalizing the idea of cultural appropriation by restricting her ability to discuss the Black male singers that have provided her so much inspiration over the years. She confesses her own desire to be right, and ties this back to her Yankee heritage and the obnoxious "righteousness" that the Puritans brought with them across the sea. She also expresses the opinion that she's glad she started creating theater in the 70s, when there wasn't as much academic discourse (and there weren't so many rules) around the kind of work she creates. She relays a story about a younger woman who, in response to this opinion, told her to "keep up" or "go away." One begins to suspect that the overwrought righteousness (the call-outs, corrections, and cancellations) embraced by a generation of young Americans is all a cynical excuse to clear out the Boomers who have occupied center stage in our culture for an inordinately long time.
An aural hint of that dominance arrives in the opening phrase of Carly Simon's "You're So Vain," which rumbles under Weaver's monologue about narcissism. Spreading a yellow tarp over a plastic and metal folding table (several of these represent the extent of the set design), Weaver repeatedly implores us to "stay at the table," a direct rebuke to Shaw's call to retreat. Her restless, distracting physicality conveys a lively spirit not ready to give up and go home (Morgan Thorson's choreography regularly leaves Weaver gasping for breath). Moving LED lights and well-executed video design (by Nagai) inject further vivacity into a work that often feels like a reluctant memorial — with one performer ready to say goodbye and the other holding on for dear life.
It's inevitable that Split Britches will cede the spotlight to newer companies, and Last Gasp gives us 75 minutes to consider what we are losing when that transition is finally complete. I particularly enjoyed Shaw's story about funding a European tour of Hot Peaches (another queer theater troupe) by stealing bicycles. It's hard to imagine anyone who spent a quarter of a million dollars on drama school pulling that off. Just because work is "professional," "polished," and underwritten by a generous grant from the Ford Foundation doesn't make it good art. The great theater-makers of this century will be the ones who rebel against the rules and restrictions artists have so foolishly placed on themselves.