tensions at the point of origin

matthew clayfield: theatre, dance, performance, new york 

Willem Dafoe, Alenka Kraigher and the company, Idiot Savant

Willem Dafoe, Alenka Kraigher and the company, Idiot Savant

Willem Dafoe, Alenka Kraigher and the company, Idiot Savant

OF ALL THE PRODUCTIONS TO VISIT AUSTRALIA LAST YEAR, TWO OF THE BEST WERE NATURE THEATER OF OKLAHOMA’S NO DICE AND ELEVATOR REPAIR SERVICE’S GATZ, THE FORMER A SPRAWLING EXAMPLE OF VERBATIM THEATRE AT ITS MOST EXTREME AND POETICALLY INANE AND THE LATTER AN INVENTIVELY STAGED READING OF F SCOTT FITZGERALD’S THE GREAT GATSBY. ASIDE FROM LENGTH—BOTH WERE IN THEIR OWN WAY EPICS, ONE PLAYING AT FOUR HOURS, THE OTHER SEVEN—THE PRIMARY POINT OF SIMILARITY BETWEEN THE SHOWS WAS IN FACT THEIR POINT OF ORIGIN. BOTH NATURE THEATRE OF OKLAHOMA AND ELEVATOR REPAIR SERVICE HAIL FROM NEW YORK CITY AND TOGETHER REPRESENT A MERE FRACTION OF THAT CITY’S FORMALLY INNOVATIVE AND SELF-POSSESSED INDEPENDENT THEATRE COMPANIES.

For this writer, at least, both shows were revelatory and sparked an interest in New York’s Off- and Off-Off Broadway theatre scenes. It was not long before seeing Gatz that I booked my ticket to the United States and began furiously purchasing theatre tickets, too, to shows playing while I was there. While certain to temper my intake of independent and fringe work with a bit of White Elephant art (Patrice Chéreau’s production of Janacek’s From the House of the Dead at the Metropolitan Opera) and the occasional guilty pleasure (Ricky Gervais at Carnegie Hall), for the most part I was there to see what I could in the way of cutting-edge formalism, new writing and contemporary avant-gardism.

morgon thorson, heaven

Morgon Thorson’s Heaven fell somewhere between the first and third of these categories, a brilliant figuration at the level of the body, not only of religious ecstasy and grace, but also of the masochistic submission and abject self-loathing so often involved in the search for transcendence. Indeed, the performance often seemed suspended between the extremes of the sublime and the cilice, the performers running, jumping and whirling in circles, embraced for the moment by air and light, before debasing themselves at the feet of their unseen celestial dictator almost immediately afterwards. Throwing themselves into walls and each other, tangling and tying themselves in elastics and endless rolls of tape, there was a subtle but suggestive hint of corporal mortification in the work. Many reviewers insisted that the search for spiritual transcendence was a metaphor for the choreographer’s own search for physical perfection in dance; few followed this metaphor to its logical conclusion, however, which is that the price of this transcendence or performative perfection is in fact physical self-destruction. This idea is an unsettling one—that grace and self-harm contain and enable one another—but it reaped fine aesthetic rewards here.

temporary distortion, american kamikaze

Temporary Distortion’s American Kamikaze, too, contrived to collapse apparent opposites, the most notable of these being east and west, as well as theatre and cinema. A J-Horror [Japanese horror. Eds] story with an American neo-noir sensibility, the production perfectly married content and form. If Joseph Cornell, the master of the assemblage, had designed theatrical sets, he may have come up with something rather like this one: two coffin-sized boxes in which the performers stood motionless, speaking their lines in chilling monotone, flanked a tall, thin screen on which the pre-recorded inner lives of their characters played out, theatre and cinema leaning on and playing off one another. The production’s narrative of collapsing marriages, abusive lovers and leather-clad murderesses similarly amounted to little more than a pretence for narrative and generic deconstruction. As in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive or one of Paul Auster’s intentionally airless fictions, everything in the production eventually turned around on itself, and had one questioning whose doppelganger was whose, and whether it was the stage or the screen component of the story that was meant to be its supposed reality. While some of the horror elements of the production were indeed quite frightening, it was as much this Möbius strip-like quality, the sense of having the formal and generic rugs pulled out from under you, that made the production most unsettling.

meg stuart, auf den tisch

!
Perhaps most striking about Meg Stuart’s Auf den tisch! was its overwhelming sense of nostalgia, at times only latent, at others self-conscious, and ultimately—if only retrospectively—restrictive and suffocating. The show’s conceit was a simple, even promising one: a group of actors, dancers, performance artists and random creative types were invited to create an ostensibly improvised work around a large, stage-like table, taking as their starting point whatever creative, political or personal concerns they wished to express or discuss at the time. Sitting around the table with the audience, and free to get up on it whenever the urge took them, the performers were given their heads. Using microphones placed around the table, they would start a conversation, which would turn sooner or later into a dance solo, which would turn into something else again. It very quickly became apparent that the production was meant to be a kind of happening, deliberately harking back to events the performers had once been party to or perhaps even performed in.

But this self-conscious happeningness was ultimately lacking in irony: earnest, strained attempts were made to get the audience to voluntarily tear up dollar bills (a not particularly original or effective political statement, and one that was apparently repeated the following evening, suggesting that things were not quite as improvised as had originally been made out), and race and class were discussed in prolix academic terms that seemed entirely out-of-date. At one point Slovenian artist Janez Janša, scaling a scaffold to one side of the table-stage, chided his fellow performers for not taking the performance to the extreme and pushing it to its limits. He cited a New York performance artist who decided, three decades ago, to question why one couldn’t get one’s kit off during a performance by getting his kit off during a performance. That’s all very good and well for you to say, another performer accused from the table, but you’re hardly testing such boundaries yourself. You’re just hanging off the scaffold there. At which point Janša got his kit off, hanging off the walls and flapping, so to speak, in the wind. But surely if people had been stripping off in the 70s, as Janša had claimed, then his own nudity now remained within accepted boundaries, little more than a nostalgic homage. Indeed, far from exploring new possibilities for performance, or asking new and probing questions about it, the performers remained unhelpfully stuck on old ones, unable or unwilling to move forward.

müller-wilson, quartett

There is something about Robert Wilson’s work that does little for this writer: the ultimate emptiness of its grandiosity, perhaps, or the decorative arbitrariness of most of its motifs of forms. Someone whose work this cannot be said of at all is the German playwright Heiner Müller, which is why the idea of a Wilson-directed Quartett seemed to me such a curious one, even if he’d already directed it numerous times in the past, and even if this incarnation starred the incomparable Isabelle Huppert. I rather entered the theatre hoping that Wilson would stay the hell out of Müller’s way.

And so it was surprising to find that while Wilson’s production neither obfuscated or misinterpreted Müller’s vicious, carnal adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses, nor did it appear any less Wilsonesque in its aesthetic or execution. Unlike Americana Kamikaze, however, this happy accident had nothing to do with a perfect marriage of content and marriage didn’t even appear to be on the cards: it was as though form and content had never met. Indeed, for much of the production, stagecraft and text appeared to be running parallel to one another, bemused by, when not simply indifferent towards, what the other one was doing.

Only when Ariel Garcia Valdès, playing Valmont, and Huppert as the Marquise de Merteuil, were left alone on stage to thrash it out to the end, did these parallel lines converge to create a sense of a unified whole: the rest of the time you were basically able to regard one or the other entirely in and of itself. Regarding them thus, the text clearly came off the superior of the two. A dense, poetic, sweaty thing, obsessed with flesh and propensity to rot, its effect was a sense of mortality unlike any I think I have experienced in the theatre. Müller uses language to often intensely physical effect: not only did your skin crawl at his words—”I want to emancipate your blood from the prison of the veins, your entrails from the constraint of the body, your bones from the choke-hold of the flesh”—you actually felt it rotting on the bone, fetid, like a pound of flesh left out in the sun. The same could not be said of the production, which exhibited precisely the arbitrariness of form I had earlier suspected it might. With the exception of Wilson’s colour-coded lighting, which cast Valmont in demonic red and the Marquise in an icy blue, and which was at once both visually striking and more than a little obvious, Quartett’s visual and aural forms—large geometric shapes rotating slowly on the floor, electronically distorted voices—seemed at best dramatically unmotivated and at worst like out-of-date self-parody.

Huppert was at once a part of this aesthetic schema and apart from it. More than any other element of the show, including the other performances, the actress seemed able to embody Müller’s corpsical poetry while simultaneously accommodating Wilson’s more abstract vision. Delivering a taut, highly mannered performance, which nonetheless throbbed with real corporeal energy, Huppert fashioned herself as a site where writer and director might meet on common ground, while she took charge of the situation and—Merteuil-like to the last—sublimated both to the other and ultimately, therefore, to herself.

richard foreman, idiot savant

My first experience of Richard Foreman’s theatrical work had been plugged in the press as also being his last. Starring Willem Dafoe in the title role, Idiot Savant was to be the writer-director’s swan song—or, given the unexplained prevalence of another breed of web-footed fowl in the piece, his duck song—with avant-garde film to take up most of his time from now on. The piece was essentially an Ionesco-ish romp through some of Foreman’s trademark concerns, addressing such issues as language and its shortcomings and that old self-reflexive chestnut that is theatre that knows it’s theatre. But I found myself willing to excuse them in the face of such awesome performances.

Much like Huppert in Quartett, Dafoe was at once both a part of the play and external to it, lifted outside of it less due to his fame than by virtue of his valiant attempts to be more than Foreman’s paper doll. His co-stars, Elina Löwensohn and Alenka Kraigher, rose to the occasion, too: if the Pirandello-esque self-consciousness of their characters worked for the production instead of grating against it, it is likely because they seemed to be in conscious opposition to the director who had written them such flimsy and cipher-like roles. (Three Characters at War with an Author might have been an accurate subtitle.) The result worked a treat: even if one does not buy Foreman as a philosopher, you can’t deny he’s a creator of striking imagery and intensely theatrical business, and the struggles of the actors to find something human within his hermetically—and hermeneutically—sealed world rendered this production surprisingly engaging.

Kianne Muschett, Sterling K. Brown and the company, In the Red and Brown Water, part of  The Brother/Sister Plays

Kianne Muschett, Sterling K. Brown and the company, In the Red and Brown Water, part of The Brother/Sister Plays

Kianne Muschett, Sterling K. Brown and the company, In the Red and Brown Water, part of The Brother/Sister Plays

tarell alvin mccraney, the brother/sister plays

By far the best thing I saw in New York City was Tarell Alvin McCraney’s tri-generational epic, The Brother/Sister Plays, which any festival director worth their salt should secure for their next program. Directed by Tina Landau and Robert O’Hara and starring a versatile, highly committed cast, the three plays that make up McCraney’s trilogy—In the Red and Brown Water, The Brothers Size, and Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet—were at once both modest and expansive in scope, quotidian in their concerns and monumental in their realisation. Living on the Louisiana bayou, the characters have simple, even ordinary hopes and dreams—to have a baby, to help a brother, to learn about one’s past, to come of age—but in McCraney’s rendering take on the force and power of myth and the tone and timbre of memory or dream. Characters are named after Yoruban nature gods; they have prophetic dreams and visions.

The third play, Marcus, takes place as a hurricane bears down on the bayou, the narrative function of which is neglible, the symbolic function, like the storm at the end of the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man, considerable. The characters also have a strange way of speaking: in addition to their dialogue (a rich, musical vernacular) they also speak their action lines: “Ogun Size sighs,” reminding the viewer of the pre-emptive voiceover in Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped. This potentially alienating, even anti-dramatic, device took far less getting used to than one might have suspected and was used to bring the act of storytelling, which plays a central role in these plays, to the fore. The Brother/Sister Plays gave form to the manner in which we turn our lives into narratives, mythologising and making sense of them even as we are living them. It was a dramatisation, in other words, of the manifold ways we use concepts such as God’s will and fate, destiny and myth, the butterfly effect and teleology, to structure our lives as meaningful narratives. As Joan Didion once put it, we tell ourselves stories in order to live. McCraney, who I suspect we will be hearing more from in future, goes a little further: for him, we not only tell ourselves stories in order to live, we turn ourselves into stories as well.

Heaven, choreography Morgan Thorson, Performance Space 122, Oct 25–30; Temporary Distortion, Americana Kamikaze, writer, director Kenneth Collins, Performance Space 122, Oct 24-Nov14; Damaged Goods, Auf den tisch! (At the table!), curator Meg Stuart, Baryshnikov Arts Center, Nov 6-7; Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe, Quartett, writer Heiner Müller, conception, direction Robert Wilson, BAM Harvey Theater, Nov 4-14; Public Theater in association with Ontological-Hysteric Theater, Idiot Savant, writer, director Richard Foreman, Public Theater, Nov 4-Dec 20; Public Theater in association with McCarter Theatre, The Brother/Sister Plays, writer Tarell Alvin McCraney, Part 1: In the Red and Brown Water, director Tina Landau, Part 2: The Brothers Size, and Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet, director Robert O’Hara, Public Theater, New York, Nov 17-Dec 20, 2009

RealTime issue #95 Feb-March 2010 pg. 36-37

© Matthew Clayfield; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2010