"By any chance, are there a couple of boxes out there on stage?"
Such was comedienne Emily Maya Mills's query to a fellow performer in the dressing room at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. Mills needed a nook or two to stash a slew of props -- in the Lady Gaga number range -- for her 35-minute show God Hates Figs.
"There are minimal costume changes. I wear no shoes in the show, but everything else is the craziest prop situation I've ever handled," explained Mills about her 60th show at UCB -- her second one-woman -- directed by fellow UCB vet Julie Brister. "This is going to look like a living cartoon."
Though we live in a city that's a comedy bellwether, in particular the alternative comedy queen scene -- which over the last decade or so has been punctuated by such greats as Beth Lapides, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Maria Bamford, Natasha Leggero, to name a few -- we can lose track of what's new. Let's add Mills to that group of next-gen femmes helping to obliterate the women-aren't-funny cliche -- which, incidentally, is part of her act.
I arrived Tuesday night expecting to be treated to her stand-up (see it check it out here), which she flexes around town at such rooms as What's Up Tiger Lily, R-Bar and The Virgil. To label Mills' material as strictly being related to current affairs is an understatement, because it's so much more, often underscoring or prognosticating the outrageousness of a situation (see her take on over-aggressive Los Angeles Times customer sales reps, or her extrapolation on the woman CEO of the extramarital affair site Ashley Madison). Accentuating this is Mills' easygoing cadence reminiscent of Teri Garr and fetching looks that arguably could get her mistaken as Carey Mulligan's sister. For Mills, the comedians she admires are Carol Burnett, Gilda Radner and contemporaries like Bamford.
In God Hates Figs, Mills displayed a melange of female characters evolving through time. But this wasn't merely a wig-swapping stock character revue, despite Mills' penchant for continually creating a zany dramatis personae. (Check out her promiscuous period lady opposite Thomas Lennon in Invention of the Zipper from her sketch group Birds of Prey.) "They're fragments of real people, for sure," asserted Mills about their grounding. Not to mention, she had some heavy philosophical issues on her mind -- in the Terrence Malick Tree of Life sense.
"I'm in a constant state of existential crisis, trying to figure out why we belong here and how people react and treat each other. I'm constantly searching through philosophy and physics," said Mills backstage, dabbing base on her face.
The show's title is a riff on the satirical protest slogan generated against the Westboro Baptist Church's anti-gay chant. "If you take the Venn diagram of the show and all the characters of the show, the show's title is in there," she said. "'God Hates Figs' was a joke that came up between my neighbor and I as we lived across from a Lassens. They gave a bunch of money to Prop 8 and they have these zany names for their food like 'The divine bovine turkey jerky.' We started joking that they're selling 'Hate hummus' and 'Hate wraps.'"
As the lights rose on God Hates Figs, "Carmina Burana" swelled and we found ourselves at a museum for humanity, overlooking the female exhibits. As Mills has done in some stand-up bits, she hits her laughs via an old vaudeville technique -- using sounds instead of spoken-word dialogue. Here, she is a grunting cave woman, displaying that women were even bulimic for the sake of their figure back in the stone age.
Then there was Heather Littlefeather, a Massachusetts-accented, iron-fisted woman of Irish descent clad in Native American garb who recently learned that her real father was from the Piqua nation. "Now I know why I get in trouble for smacking cops. The white man is my mortal enemy," blared Littlefeather, who's filled ironies, such as she's allergic to corn and "that Iron Maiden is my spiritual band. I should be pissed at them for whatever they did to my people."
Backstage, Mills told me that she drew her inspiration for Littlefeather from a personality she spotted in a documentary. "Initially, I had a hard time identifying with her, but there was just something so visually juxtaposing in terms of who she was and how she sounded."
In the section of the show on creationism, Mills as Eve taunted God, in order to prove that women are funny, despite his grumpy bias that they're not. "You laugh at all of Adam's 'Check out my serpent jokes,' and frankly that dick-in-a-snake bit is really hack," blasted Eve.
Then, in a costume change as avant-garde as one out of a Madonna concert, Mills, clad in her Eve skin-color leotard, began dancing to Kendrick Lamar's "Blow My High" as words scrolled across the screen, poking fun at her slinky persona and suggesting to the audience that they call her Carol. The words "Now I'm reverse stripping to reverse your thinking about what stripping is" flashed, as Mills donned the get-up of a new-age self-help guru whose life isn't exactly together.
The guru encouraged everyone to love -- love so much that it's OK to get married four times. "You can get a brand new credit card every time your name changes!" she exclaimed. But the one universal truth that truly made the crowd roar: "If you leap, the net will appear. But if you jump off the roof of an abandoned church while on piote, it will hurt," warned Mills' alter-ego.
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God Hates Figs hit its pinnacle toward the end when Mills as a sour matronly centaur interrupted a gay marriage with her objections and cried a number contradictions. "I want to demand to see Obama's birth certificate! Never mind that I can't provide my own because I was born in a field in another dimension."
Much like Lily Tomlin's The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, there's a plethora of underlying self-reflecting themes to take away from God Hates Figs. The show is bound to be mounted at UCB again in the near future. In the meantime, catch Mills' sets on March 28 at Virgil (7:30 p.m.) and Cinefile (9 p.m.). Follow her on Twitter: @emilymayamills.