Benton's latest, "Poor Baby Bree in I Am Going to Run Away," offers two versions of Bree. First, we see her as a precocious young child—à la Shirley Temple or the young Judy Garland—who's run away from home to join the circus (sorry, "soy-cus") and brings her "dollies" with her. Cut to many years later, and she is a faded flower, forced to make a living on the streets after a failed three-ring career. Think Liza Minnelli meets the Brothers Grimm.
As with any classic vaudeville, Bree's morbid narrative is mostly an excuse to deliver a series of idiosyncratic songs, here dating from the 1890s to the 1920s, with titles such as "I'll Pin Another Petal on the Daisy," "I've Got a Pain in My Sawdust," and my personal favorite, "Oh, How I Love to Dunk Doughnuts!" She's joined onstage by a pianist (Franklin Bruno), a violist (Karen Waltuch), and a horn player (Jacob Garchik, on trombone and tuba), who match her quirky energy and skewed comic sensibility.
Just as Benton chooses only forgotten songs to fill out her act, so her show makes no attempt to feel contemporary. She never winks at her audience or contextualizes the style of her performance. As though unaware that she's not in a giant vaudeville house (though she does use a microphone), Benton stares into the middle distance and makes no apologies for her material's outdated, at times baffling humor.
In a soft rebuke to the nostalgia with which the old form is typically remembered, Poor Baby Bree is vaudeville in all its strangeness. The pleasure she offers is akin to discovering your grandparents' prom photos and realizing that you don't recognize them, or their world, at all.
Presented by and at La MaMa ETC, 74A E. 14th St., NYC. April 14–29. Fri. and Sat., 10 p.m.; Sun., 5:30p.m. (212) 475-7710 or www.lamama.org.