Nancy's dungeon is really the black basement at La Val's, done up like a suburban kitchen. There's a fridge and a stove and a row of large spoons and things like potato mashers dangling from the ceiling. I was hoping these utensils would serve as exotic dominatrix props, but Mistress Nancy is a tease: The only tools she actually touches are a variety of whips.
She starts by ridiculing any suspicions you might have that her dominatrix pose is the result of some convoluted Freudian relationship with her dad, then spends the rest of the show talking about him. Soon a very girlish and casual Nancy Wright Cooper takes over from Mistress Nancy, sits cross-legged on the kitchen table, and reminisces about her brothers, her mom, her dad's work for the civil rights movement in Chicago, the blues bars he haunted, his women, his alcoholism. The best part of this monologue is the shaded and complex portrait Cooper paints of her dad. First you like him, then you resent him, then you sense the depth of Cooper's loss at his death. The worst part is that Cooper's casualness seems contrived, and her coy, personable tone never changes. She hasn't mastered the script so much as memorized it: The girlish and vulnerable Nancy sometimes sounds like a creative writing student reading from a page.
The two Nancys alternate throughout the show between brief annoying blackouts. Mistress Nancy refers to herself in third person and gives a running lesson in terminology, distinguishing between B/D, S/M, and D/S (domination/submission), explaining the importance of "safe words," and so on. A "safe word" turns out to be any word that a submissive shouts when the domination gets too intense. Since "no" and "stop" are part of the game, some other word must be found beforehand as a signal to ease off. ("Your sub will almost never say the word 'pineapple,'" says Mistress Nancy, "unless he means 'pineapple.'") Blackout. Then vulnerable Nancy returns with the story of her initiation into San Francisco's D/S scene a few years ago. Even without help from the light board we would get the two-Nancys idea, and the sole excuse for the blackouts after a while would be to fuck with the audience's minds by not changing personas -- a fine opportunity exploited by Cooper exactly once.
Stagy as she is, the vulnerable Nancy is still more natural than Mistress Nancy, who never quite makes it as a fearsome bitch. She cracks her whip and shrills orders to members of the audience to take off their shoes, but Mistress Nancy is clearly just a bossy girl in fishnet. Cooper knows this, and eventually makes her own kittenishness the point of the show; still, after all her local publicity in leather it's a deep disappointment to find a Mistress Nancy who isn't more dom.
Some of the vulnerable-Nancy scenes work well, though. Under a dim red light she gives a disarmingly tender description of the first spanking she ever saw, at an S/M party. A segment about her power struggle with her teenage daughter is frank and raw; so is the end of an impressionistic scene with her father that has her screaming "Pineapple!" Now and then she breaks through the gloss of contrived casualness and hits a nerve. But it would be nice if there were no gloss to break through, if the moments of emotion were well-controlled peaks instead of blisters -- because the show has plenty of other moments of wallowing in narcissism. They seem to say, "Look what happened to me," and draw attention to the performer behind the leather teddy even more urgently than most solo performance art.
I thought Spank was going to be an embarrassing exercise in dominatrix posturing and phony philosophizing, and to some extent it is. But Mistress Nancy is also clever and quick. Her show turns out to be a solo piece about family and love, not a theatrical up-bubbling of the local D/S scene. I'd like to compare it with all those other D/S solo shows you see around, but it occurs to me that I've never seen one. We seem to have a thriving network of people into disciplinary sex, so it surprises me that more of its members don't feel any compulsion to climb onstage. This is just an observation -- I don't mean to encourage anyone -- but if narcissism is the first and most obvious risk in dealing frankly with sex onstage, why shouldn't the Bay Area, of all places, have a core of artists devoted to overcoming it? Poor Mistress Nancy is alone.