Writer/performer/director/artist/professor Lindsay Beamish thinks about rooms a lot. Some of her earliest art projects show a fascination with women in abandoned rooms. Ms. Beamish likes to make jokes while alone in her bedroom, and she once locked herself in a motel room in the middle of nowhere Wyoming to write her Master’s thesis, which garnered her the Iron Horse Discovered Voices Award in 2011.
Beamish describes her current project, Wigs, as being about “two captured preteen girls locked in a room.” Wigs is a two-woman theatrical piece written, directed and starring Lindsay Beamish and Amanda Vitiello, and is currently showing at the New York International Fringe Festival. The origins of Wigs began with Beamish and Vitiello, in an empty room. According to the Wigs Artist’s Note, it began with “the impetus of challenging ourselves to work in ways that we hadn’t before; ways that were uncomfortably outside of our typical modes of creating original theater.” Rehearsal for Wigs began with Beamish shouting commands at Vitiello, who only brought with her to that initial rehearsal space The Flo Rida featuring Sia song, “Wild Ones,” which is prominently featured in the final piece.
I have been a fan of Beamish’s work since I saw her in Miranda July’s short film, Nest of Tens sixteen years ago. A few years later, I caught Beamish on tour with her dance company The Leg and Pants Dance Theatre. At the time, the performance managed to elevate my appreciation of her already stirring on-screen performance in July’s film. It was inspiring to see the all-female performance art group taking over the floor space and stages of bars and nightclubs formerly reserved for traditional rock groups. I ran into Beamish a couple years later when we were both part of an experimental dinner theater project in Los Angeles. Beamish’s contribution to the project was a kind of superhuman multimedia performance art. I wasn’t surprised to learn that she went on to get two Master’s in Fine Arts degrees: one in Creative Writing from the University of Wyoming and another in Dramatic Arts from UC Davis. I was prepared to enjoy Wigs, but my expectations were well short of the 50 minute experience.
Seated in the audience for at least 10 minutes before the performance began, I don’t think I was the only person wondering how the actors would enter the stage. The show begins with Jenny Parker (Vitiello) crawling out of a child’s “fort” made of sheets and blankets located just offstage. Apparently both artists had been in this fort the entire time. I (and I suspect the other audience members) could not help but wonder what else was inside that fort. Our only clue was an angry male voice barking orders from inside this fort. The rest of the set consisted of a door covered in padlocks, a variety of wigs hanging on a wall, some hangers, a plastic fork, a radio, and, for good measure, a clear cube on the floor. The cube serves as some kind of “sleeping chamber” where the characters claustrophobically repose directly on top of each other. The fact that the sleeping cube is transparent further illustrates the lack of privacy these characters have.
The male voice calls out, “Progress! Progress!” which the girls take as a directive to try on various wigs and personalities. As it turns out, The Man, who we never see, is voiced by both Beamish and Vitiello, adding a final layer of unease to an already starkly uncomfortable set. The audience gets the impression that the girls haven’t left the room in years.
While we don’t know the most basic facts about these characters, Jenny Parker and Ruthie Featherstone (Lindsay Beamish)—their exact ages, how long they have been in this room, how they were captured, what city they are from and so forth, we do learn about their interpersonal dynamics. We know that Parker is slightly older than Featherstone, and she’s willing to pick up any necessary slack to keep both The Man and Featherstone happy. Parker sleeps in what seems like an impossibly uncomfortable position every night and she wakes up first so she can have a little bit of time to herself. The character’s obvious desire for solitude in such an isolated and claustrophobic setting is particularly poignant, and serves as one of the many strengths of this performance.
Another strength is in the details. The wardrobe Parker and Featherstone wear exude the sloppy femininity one would imagine for these characters. They don’t seem to have time or interest in combing their hair or wearing anything other than pajamas. The bottoms of their feet are dirty. They can’t seem to keep their wigs nice and clean. Each character is (understandably) a physical and emotional mess. It’s not that I am particularly interested in art about people being held against their will, but I am interested in art that is honest about the damage humans inflict upon another. Likewise, I am fascinated about the rituals that keep us sane because they are all we have to hold onto. Wigs is full of honesty and insight regarding the complicated dynamics of a forced bond between two women, and the coping mechanisms these characters rely on to make it through the night that lasts forever. We don’t know how long these women have been locked up, but we know it has been longer more than any of us wish to imagine.
I started crying when I heard Parker say, “I said, No!” There is something so devastating about a woman, or in this case, a preteen girl, having to tell her captor of (presumably) many years that no, she doesn’t want him to touch her; no, she doesn’t want to touch him; and no, she doesn’t want to be there. By that point in the performance, the obliviousness or denial by a captor that a woman doesn’t want to be held against her will just floored me. What happens to Parker’s character next took Wigs in a direction I wasn’t expecting. I don’t wish to spoil the ending of the piece, but I will say that midway through one of the girls’ rituals, I started to wonder how many times this particular practice had been performed, and whether this was its last occurrence or if we were stuck in a loop along with these preteens, forced to relive the same day over and over again.
The New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC) is the biggest multi-arts festival in North America, and is running from now until August 28, 2016. You can see Wigs this Wednesday 8/24, Thursday 8/25 and Saturday 8/27. www.wigstheshow.com has all the information you need to buy tickets.