Portland Ovation and Space present Sara Juli in “Burnt-Out Wife” this weekend in Portland. Photo by Allen Baldwin, courtesy of Sara Juli

“I just need five minutes,” Sara Juli shouts down the hall to her husband as she enters Space gallery’s stage, which has been transformed into an elaborately decorated pink bathroom. With the aid of a pink toilet, bathtub and shower, she is not taking a quiet moment to herself, but instead offers a “cleansing.”

“Burnt-Out Wife” is a master storyteller channeling over-the-top humor to help us digest a very serious topic – should she stay in her marriage or get a divorce? This is the world premiere of solo dance/performance artist Sara Juli’s latest work.

The show begins with the details of why she wanted to get married and how hard she worked to “lock in her man.” She achieved her plan by dancing topless and baking a homemade chocolate Bundt cake to lure him in. Now, wearing a frilly bathrobe, she is still working hard to keep looking pretty after having two kids. She tweezes her eyebrow, then her chin, then her breast, which too has begun to grow hair. She puts a bridal veil over her face and revs herself into a panic. “I can’t breathe, can we talk about this? How long? I’m OK, I’m OK.”  She teeters as if ready to fall off the edge, twitches and finally sinks to the floor gasping. Then comes a slow description of what she needs and wants versus what her husband likes and needs. It’s a moving mantra that repeats as she dances faster into a frantic pace and frenzied state.

Using a hairbrush for a microphone she begins a stand-up comedy routine saying in many different ways that she’s now in marriage counseling. Juli is a skilled comedian, and explains that she isn’t a good listener, and her husband talks to her like a business acquaintance. They do need counseling! Then four toilet plungers – two mini and two full-sized – make a dance representing mom, dad, and the kids. Another dance sequence accompanied by the sounds of urinating into a toilet. She changes robes, and this one is styled like an armored suit, but it’s pink and decorated with feminine hygiene products. When she removes the silly robe, in her bra and underpants she devolves into saying “let me see, let me go, let go, let go, let go,” which continues being repeated silently as she backs away. This is haunting.

Singing her original song “Only in the Bathtub,” Juli sits in the tub and her lyrics ask her husband if he was ready to “throw in the towel and has he pulled the plug?” She then asks the audience questions. “If me and you were married would you …” The audience responds with answers that sound different from what her husband might have said. Finally down the hall to her husband who has been waiting for her, she calls, “I know I’ve been longer then five minutes, I’ll be right there.” Then to her confessional audience, “I gotta go,” and she blows us a kiss.

But it didn’t end there. To keep up with the outrageousness, after the show ended, both Sari Juli and her husband, Chris Ajemain, sat with a marriage counselor and talked about how they felt about the performance. It added another layer to the already very personal story we witnessed in the theatrical work. Now we see both actual husband and wife. They were real and it was not funny or sad to listen to them talking. They were like the neighbors and friends that we all know and care for that struggle to work through life challenges.

Jessica Lockhart is a National Endowment for the Arts Fellow in dance criticism and a contributor to the online magazine Arts Fuse.

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