Anyone who may have been lured to Holly Hughes's solo theatrical performance at Dance Place this past weekend for its presumed shock value must either have gone away disappointed or have entered with a relatively low threshold of mortification in the first place.

Not that the presentation -- a 90-minute monologue titled "World Without End" -- is devoid of provocative aspects. But in the main these are conceptual, as one might expect of an artist who is a frank and proud lesbian, and whose work confronts head-on such volatile contemporary issues as sexual orientation, prejudice and distorted stereotypes. And if the language is often colloquially bawdy, it is scarcely more so than that of Rabelais or Joyce, whose works are safely "classical" enough to be immune from attack except by terminal prudes.

The fact that Hughes has found herself in a storm of controversy over the funding policies of the National Endowment for the Arts -- which has recently withdrawn approval of grant applications by Hughes and three other performance artists, despite peer panel endorsement for all -- may make it difficult at the moment to see "World Without End" clearly for what it is. As the title suggests, the piece is essentially a morality play, a highly personalized rumination on sexuality and the connections among love, mortality and human intimacy. It's at once deadly serious, laceratingly ironic, funny and irreverent.

There's a further source of confusion in the quasi-autobiographical nature of the work, which alludes to actual persons, places, incidents and conflicts in Hughes's life, from her Michigan childhood to her experiences as an art student and beyond. In particular, "World Without End" is an impassioned portrait of and elegy for Hughes's mother, whose profound carnality made Hughes feel they were "two of a kind" despite radical differences. The point is that although Hughes takes herself, her mother and their ambivalent affinities as subject matter for her exposition, this isn't a memoir, but a work of art that selects, shapes and shades these raw materials toward a coherently expressive but fictive goal. Hughes, like other artists who have used themselves as points of departure, isn't telling us what her life has been, but rather what insights -- emotional and intellectual -- it has led her to.

The form is generally meanderingly conversational, but the impromptu flavor is deceptive, for the piece is intricately and shrewdly structured. At the start we see an easy chair and an end table with a flower-filled vase. Behind them, on the floor, protrude Hughes's arm and leg, and we hear her say, "Oh, uh, here's the deal, okay?" establishing a companionable, letting-one's-hair-down tone. But one of the chief charms of the piece is the way the language smoothly modulates into an almost hallucinatory, poetic vein and back. Sometimes this happens in atmospheric grace notes, as when she speaks of "the smell of fresh Formica" at a fast-food joint. But it can also take her from the morbidity of her mother's death, leaving her feeling as if she is drowning in an ocean of blood, tears and sorrow, to the sudden levity of "Y'know, I just can't watch TV anymore, I just can't -- there's always some man laughing."

Sometimes, too, Hughes shifts abruptly into Brechtian asides, laughing at herself and the issues surrounding her work. To a brief smattering of accordion music, she cuts a little caper and announces, "This is called 'using the space'; now you know it's performance art." Later, in the midst of a determinedly polemical section touching on such subjects as child abuse, battered women, racism and the politicization of art, she cuts in with "You're mad at me, huh? Ya gonna call up the NEA and tell them they were right?" Or she will illustrate a point with a quip: She poses a "typical" male chauvinist question, "Where are all the great women artists?" and retorts, "They're out in the kitchen makin' you a {freakin'} cup of coffee."

But the leitmotif of the mother-daughter relationship persistently reasserts itself and culminates movingly in a recapitulation of Hughes's memory of her mother's consoling words: "I know you're scared; I'm scared; I used to be a baby; everybody's scared, but nobody's scared enough." The final sequence is a tour de force, which segues from a bizarre erotic encounter between Hughes and a man she meets at her mother's funeral -- a scene Hughes dubs a "walk-up Garden of Eden" -- to an evocation of her parents making love the night before her mother's death, hauntingly redoubling the Edenic metaphor.

The piece sags from time to time, and the script occasionally declines into ingenuous sloganeering, but the force of Hughes's imagination and her courageously self-revelatory probings far outweigh the lapses.

In the audience at Saturday night's benefit performance were two of the other NEA rejectees -- West Coast performance artists Tim Miller and John Fleck. Fleck made a brief, vehement pitch for artistic freedom, and introduced Hughes with a droll capsule performance of his own.