Saturday, September 10, 2011

Feet First in the Water Makes a Splash

By James E. Trainor III

Iowa City - Feet First in the Water With a Baby in My Teeth, Megan Gogerty's new one-woman show, starts off with an anecdote that typically divides the child-bearers from the childless: the dreaded baby on the plane.

If you don't have kids, you've probably had this experience: you're sitting on the plane and some thoughtless lady next to you has a screaming baby. You think: what's wrong with her? Why is this baby on the plane? Why can't she keep it quiet?

Of course, if you do have kids, you've probably been in that woman's shoes, and you know full well that once that metal box is in the air, there is really nothing you can do. You're trapped. It's the kind of thing that you just have to experience on your own, sort of a rite of passage for new moms who have the audacity to go out in public, get on planes, and generally carry on with their lives.

It's with this scenario, performed with a great deal of frenetic comic energy on Scott Olinger's simple and versatile set, that Gogerty starts her hysterical journey down the turbulent river of motherhood. "A baby is born in a few tough hours," Gogerty tells us, "but a mother's birth takes years."

Feet First in the Water With a Baby in My Teeth is an insightful, daring and outrageously comic examination of what it takes to simultaneously be a wife, mother, and working artist in 21st-Century America. Building on a tradition of strong women fighting against all odds, it asks in a very frank and funny manner the question: how can a strong modern woman carry on with her career while her life is being subsumed by the needs of another?

Echoing through the ages, tough mothers from the past have an answer: "ya figure it out." The strong woman of American history gets personal: Gogerty explains her mother's clever and gruesome method of killing chickens on a farm at nine years old and her subsequent determination to get an education. She then dips deeper into family history, relating her great-grandmother's heroic journey across the Mississippi, swimming away from a burning steamboat, infant clutched in her teeth. Compared to that, a modern middle-class woman's social anxiety and career worries seem a bit like first-world problems.

We see, in a series of wonderfully silly "scenes" (the action is performed by Gogerty alone, sometimes with a stepstool standing in for baby or husband, sometimes playing other characters herself), the emotional journey of the young mother.

We see the youthful optimism and determination before the baby comes: "Where a lot of parents go wrong is, they're not organized," Gogerty informs us, with an eager, clueless grin. "I made a flowchart." She proudly shows off her organizational tools, then parades over to the bookshelf: "this book lays out a typical baby's day." She is pleased enough with herself to dance around the stage in glee, until suddenly a year flashes by and she snaps into a grim, exhausted woman.

We see the famous "terrible twos," where a grizzled, overworked Gogerty chases an imaginary boy around the stage, trying desperately to save her laptop - and five minutes of free time - from the needs, desires and whims of a potty-training tyrant.

We see her grasping for a little bit of space, some "me" time, a hobby, working through the problem while sarcastically going through the motions of a "step aerobics" class.

We see her argue with herself in the pivotal moment, daring to ask the ultimate, cold, hard question: "do you regret it?"

The answer, of course, is "no." There's enormous value in raising children despite the numerous stresses and frustrations, and Gogerty is quick to point out that nothing worthwhile has ever been easy.

All of this is performed with tireless, full-bodied commitment. Gogerty's acting style is unabashed, heightened and resourceful, and at the same time heart-breakingly vulnerable. She throws herself completely into a bit, commanding the full stage with ease and energy, guiding us from anecdote to philosophical aside to hot-blooded rant with ingratiating charm and expert comic timing.

Alexis Chamow's direction shows in the easy flow of this piece; the storytelling is excellent and every moment has clearly been explored and polished quite well. Chamow is Gogerty's eyes on the ground, allowing her to fly into fancy, which gives the raw emotion and irreverent humor of this piece a crisp, clean structure.

The lighting design by Drew Bielinski is a great aid to the storytelling. We go all over the place in this play, and whether the excursion is to the local library or Carhenge, the no-frills setup has a color and angle that sets the tone perfectly.

The sound design, also by Gogerty, does a great job of completing the environment. It's employed particularly well when the young college couple discovers Dolly Parton, first ironically and then sincerely, and again when a low creeping noise signals a toddler's tantrum swimming in like Jaws.

If you're a new parent, you absolutely have to see this show. It's required reading, if only so you can't say, with Gogerty, "nobody told me about [insert humiliating and exasperating story]." If your kids are older, you'll laugh right along as she airs the frustrations and challenges of the first few hectic years of parenthood. If you don't have kids, come see it anyway. You won't regret it. Gogerty is the kind of solo performer you just have to see to believe.

Feet First in the Water With a Baby in My Teeth runs September 9 – October 2 at Riverside Theatre. Showtimes are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.

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