Mary Shelley's life could have been lifted straight from the pages of a Gothic novel. Her father, the philosopher William Godwin, supposedly began teaching her to spell by having her trace the inscription on her dead mother's tombstone. At 16, she ran away to live with the poet Percy Shelley, who unfortunately was already married to someone else. Later, while staying with Shelley and Lord Byron in Switzerland, she conceived of Frankenstein, arguably the most famous horror novel in the history of literature. She was only 19 at the time.
By any measure, Ms. Shelley seems larger than life. Yet that hasn't stopped the Tricklock Company's Juli Etheridge from creating a one-woman show revolving around impossible comparisons between her own frantic modern life and Shelley's. The contrast is always blisteringly funny but also sometimes surprisingly touching. The Tricklock Company is inhabited by a lot of freaky people with freaky ideas. One of Etheridge's charms, and a major reason why she's such an asset to the company, is that she's so appealingly down-to-earth.
Yes, Rot is fueled by a theatrical artifice linking Etheridge's modern life with that of a dead Goth chick from the 19th century. Yes, Etheridge plays a dozen different characters. Yes, she does a lot of funny voices and drinks a considerable amount of red wine straight from the bottle.
Despite all this, Rot will feel comfortingly familiar to anyone who came of age in the '80s. In some ways, it's both a spoof and a tribute to the films of John Hughes, shifting some of the angst felt by the teens in The Breakfast Club to the life of a single woman in her 20s who just can't get a break. As was often true of Hughes' movies, Rot has a killer soundtrack, lots of laughs and plenty of romance and heartbreak. As was rarely true of his movies, Rot also offers genuine insights into the dynamics of modern twenty-something single life.
Etheridge plays a bright, lonely writer named Elizabeth, but she's clearly adapted events and characters from her own life. From start to finish, the show exhibits Etheridge's highly developed instincts for live comedy. The opening scene in which Elizabeth carries on a lengthy phone conversation with her pestering mother is worth the price of admission alone. An equally hilarious segment occurs when Elizabeth whisks through her entire catalogue of boyfriends from the fifth grade through the present, first playing the boys she's dated, then presenting her varied reactions to each bozo.
Rot isn't just a standup routine, though. When her story demands it, Etheridge also manages to make quick, convincing shifts into darker or more sentimental territory. She breaks down at a couple points in the show, and her agony is totally believable.
Mary Shelley's role in all this isn't just some cheesy theatrical gimmick tacked on to make what's essentially a comedy look and feel more serious. By the end of the performance, this device succeeds in illustrating how our most frightening creations can sometimes be our own lives.
Forget about the creepy-looking guy with skin sewn together from bits of scrap leather who speaks fluent French between grunts of despair. Piece your own monster together. Put a leash on it. Take it for a walk in the park. Maybe teach it to dance. Your life might still be a beast when you're done, but at least it'll know how to jitterbug.
There's something to be said for that, don't you think?
Rot, a one-woman show written and performed by Juli Etheridge, directed by Byron Laurie and Elsa Menendez, runs through March 6 at the Tricklock Performance Space (112 Washington SE). Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Sundays at 6 p.m. $12 general, $9 students/seniors. 254-8393.