Playwright: Megan Mercier and the ensemble. At: The Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland Ave. Tickets: 773-275-5255; www.neofuturists.org; $10-$20. Runs through: June 22
Every performance art piece has the danger of coming off as hopelessly self-absorbed and obtuseespecially if you're going in thinking that the show will approach its title topic one way, only to be confounded about the artists' actual approach that defies expectations.
This has been a problem for me in the past when reviewing shows at the Neo-Futurarium created around a concept, theme or historical event. Some met or exceeded expectations, while others fell disappointingly short like the 2006 Neo-Futurist show Drag. With me, the Neo-Futurists' current world premiere assemblage called The Miss Neo Pageant also doesn't live up to its potential.
I went in hoping for an overview with wry commentary questioning the whole business of beauty pageants, with historical citations and cultural explorations of their impact of both benefiting and exploiting women. Instead, what was offered up was the pageant as a bare-bones frame to explore five young women's personal relationships and perceptions of feminism through story, song, dance and even a circus act.
Not that there's anything wrong with that, per se, but the more personal (some would say navel-gazing) approach by co-artistic director and performer/writer Megan Mercier and director Stephanie Shaw for The Miss Neo Pageant felt like a missed opportunity. Certain sections also felt lazy at times as if they were thrown up on stage with difficult-to-discern reasoning (particularly the too-long coffee-making ballet of Tif Harrison set to the Flower Duet from the Delibes opera Lakmé).
The Miss Neo Pageant certainly starts off promising enough with the ensemble as beauty pageant contestants delivering a hilariously campy bathing-suit and sash dance number choreographed by the beautifully butch Leah Urzendowski Courser. The differing text on each of the woman's sashes includes such choice terms like: "Not Gonna Cry," "I'm Fine," "Unbridled Rage," "Crispy" and "Indiana."
But a better-established structure alerting the audience to specific pageant talent segments (complete with a smarmy/suave host) might have been more helpful to navigate the audience through the many ideas explored. I was also baffled by the show's occasional flashes of nuditythe symbolic significance was lost on me, other than perhaps to suggest that endearing balancing-wire artist Molly Plunk is a true redhead.
Despite my overall disappointment, The Miss Neo Pageant is not without its flashes of fun. They range from the foul-mouthed cutesy clogging number of Jessica Anne to Courser's show of strength and coordination twirling a large rubber tire.
Or perhaps I'm not the right audience for this show. Or maybe I just need to drop my expectations for a thoroughly researched and culturally riffed-upon show and instead give myself over to something far more personal and idiosyncratic that is representative of the artists onstage.