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She Said, She Said

See you in the funnies: Patti Dobrowolski and Nancy Cranbourne.

Nancy Cranbourne and Patti Dobrowolski, creators of the hysterically funny theater piece Two Woman Avoiding Involuntary Hospitalization, are a Boulder institution. Or perhaps I should say "treasure." Their newest offering, Mrs. Schwartz and Dober: Show and Tell for Grownups, is the first act on a double bill at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art titled New Work 2002. A series of alternating monologues, Show and Tell differs from Two Women in both style and intention. Each woman supports the other's work, watching quietly as her partner speaks, then becoming whatever is required to flesh out the scene -- a helpful boyfriend, a voice on the phone. The monologues cover several topics. Cranbourne begins the evening by describing things that bug her -- brides on television wedding shows, for instance, posing in their dresses and feeling like princesses, then yielding their names and identities to their husbands at the ensuing ceremonies without a murmur. Or people who stretch in public, a particularly apt gibe in hyper-athletic Boulder. At that moment, Cranbourne flexes a leg, gazes at us steely-eyed and comments that she's fully aware of how much we must want her at this moment.

Dobrowolski describes a lonely childhood year and her participation in a school play, when she fell in love with her role as Running Bear, an Indian boy, and realized -- half-comprehendingly and amid the jeers of her schoolmates -- that she was gay. Dobrowolski, too, is capable of inspired mime, at one point describing a teacher's dangling red earrings as wrecking balls and moving her head slowly from side to side to demonstrate their heavy motion.

Only Cranbourne could watch a production of Wit and -- as the protagonist rises from her deathbed into a heavenly cone of light and the rest of the audience weeps helplessly -- find herself fixated on the actress's "gorgeous fake breasts."

Both women describe jobs as artists in residence -- Dobrowolski in a small, conservative town, Cranbourne in a summer dance program that yielded two students. That year, Cranbourne sank into a depression so profound that her host family's furry white pillows terrified her. It took a phone call from her mother to restore her to herself.

Dobrowolski takes care of her long-estranged sister, who has had a grueling operation to straighten her scoliotic spine and replace her ribs, and that becomes the beginning of their reconciliation. But the sister can't attend this play, because she still has trouble getting through security when she travels: "Ma'am, could you step over here, please, and remove your rib cage?"

Then there's an extraordinary scene in which Cranbourne recollects being on a plane with her mother. She has communicated her mother's persona to us earlier as chatty, scatty and kindly. On the plane, her mother muddles ideas together, loses her train of thought and hops from subject to subject. The way Cranbourne plays this is so amusing that it's some time before we realize -- apparently in tandem with Cranbourne herself -- that something is seriously wrong.

A theme is emerging. It involves mothers, as a program note confirms, but I think it's also about tenderness in general, the difficulties posed by long-term relationships and the redemptive power of love. This could be sentimental, but these two women are too witty and idiosyncratic for that.

Dobrowolski and Cranbourne improvise their scripts, then prune and shape them with the help of a third longtime collaborator, Molly Thompson. As with Two Women, I had trouble determining whether the material was as clever as it seemed (though there's no doubt that it's sometimes intensely so). These women are such superb performers that they could carry off anything. Dobrowolski plays now a grown woman, now a crying child. She knows when to pull out all the stops and when to be subtle. Cranbourne has a style that's all her own -- caustic, irreverent, but brimming with feeling. She can literally entrance an audience; you feel that humming electric silence when she's coming close to the bone.

"They should have put this piece last," I whispered to my companion at the intermission. "There's no way anyone can follow it."

My mistake. Next up is dancer and performance artist Michelle Spencer Ellsworth in a piece called Six Points. She drinks toilet water from a pristine bowl on stage; her face, mouth silently moving, is projected onto the inside of its lid. She speaks on the phone to one of her three daughters, who's forged a knife and killed her father with it. Ellsworth's a gladiator. We know this because she tells us, and because she's wearing a leather belt and leg guards. She also talks to God, who answers her. God sounds female and has only one word: "No." Eventually, like the maiden in the folk song "Oh, No, John!," Ellsworth figures out how to turn this to her own advantage, posing theories that she wants contradicted. Then there are six little water-filled balloons and.... But what's the point of going on? No words can communicate the flavor of this event, nor of the longer piece with which Ellsworth follows it.

Okay, I'll try. The second piece is called Ed: The Word Made Dress, and Ellsworth is wearing it. It's more than a dress. It's a construction, a contraption, a movable, functional, useless work of art. Or sculpture. She tells us she has created it (along with Janice Benning, according to the program) to address (uh-huh) what's going on: "My problems and the world's." So the dress is an escape, a cave, a place to hide. But it's also the whole world, because she's incorporated everything that matters to her in its design. The hem contains aluminum poles that can be screwed together -- in a pentagonal shape, because that's organic, and so is she -- and in the poles are things she needs: some vinyl, a paintball gun, a spice rack ("Security's important, but I don't want to sacrifice flavor"). Essentially, the piece consists of Ellsworth's running monologue as she fiddles with the dress, explaining its virtues, transforming it into everything from a confessional booth to a movie screen. She starts talking about Temple Grandin, the Colorado State University professor who, because of her own autism, is uniquely able to feel what cattle feel. She has constructed a way of leading them to slaughter, a kind of squeeze booth, that's supposedly more humane than traditional methods. As Ellsworth describes this, she is winding the fabric of the dress closer and closer about her body, twisting it and ultimately disappearing into it, telling us it represents a uterus, but now it's also -- clearly -- the walls of the squeeze booth pressing in on the cows. Suddenly, Ellsworth's body is released, and she's falling over backward toward us. She holds the pose and seems to become someone relaxing in a hammock. Or a newborn baby. And though she's chatting away about how nice it is to stretch her back, this is still a lovely moment of freedom and peace.

Ed is meaningful on more levels than I could fathom in one viewing. Ellsworth talks about bridges, dreams and the Straits of Aden. She mentions Pasiphae, who hid inside a carefully constructed wooden cow to fornicate with a bull and ultimately gave birth to the Minotaur. (What would Temple Grandin make of that?) There's a brief comment connecting racism and war that's as close as Ellsworth comes to responding directly to current fears and uncertainties, though they obviously fuel the entire piece. And there are moments of cheerful erudition (for example, a discussion of fourteenth-century sleeves) or acute verbal brilliance, as when, circling the toilet in Six Points, Ellsworth says she's fascinated with bowls, including "the pulsing rhythms of Andrew Lloyd Webber, which have a certain bowlish quality." They do, don't they? But you can't create a logical paraphrase of Ellsworth's meaning, because it's contained in the unique way she marries the verbal, physical and visual, and it's encoded in her use of objects. Throughout this dazzling and endlessly inventive monologue, Ellsworth maintains a friendly, chirpy, neurotically matter-of-fact persona.

This is a brilliant evening of theater, but it's anything but intimidating and too funny to be pretentious. There's not a second of boredom. You find yourself hanging on every word, and periodically, spurts of unexpected laughter rocket up from your diaphragm. You just have to hear the talking roll of toilet paper. And there are only a couple of weekends left for you to do it.