Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Reza Abdoh's pocket epic theater

There are an overwhelming amount of things to do in New York; indeed, even if one restricts matters to what is going on in my university, certainly not the largest or busiest in the city, there are so many events put on each week that to attend even a third of them taxes one; stamina. Nonetheless, I try to make nearly every one of my Lang theatrical colleague Zishan Ugurlu's productions because of the eclecticism and cutting-edge nature of her material and as she has exceptional ability to motivate students to go to the very limit of their abilities. I was also interested in the work that was being put on, The Law of Remains by the Iranian-born American playwright Reza Abdoh. I knew his name, and that he had died far too young of AIDS, but was unfamiliar with the work. 

The appalling murders perpetrate by Jeffrey Dahmer, against the tableau of the institutionalized racism and homophobia that made his crimes possible, is at the heart of the play--not pathologized, though (they are already pathological enough) but seen in a social context, as an index of the cruel place America had become in the 1980s. Having just reread Prometheus Bound earlier in the day, it seemed very 'Greek' to me--the way in which drama was precisely what was unrepresentable in normal life and discourse, that it was the realm of the abject, the scapegoated, the sacred profane..also the son-contraptions were like choral odes, of course satiric or ironically deployed choral odes, but had the same sense of emotional release....the very idea of remains, the taboo of cannibalism, the association of sex with other appetites, the Greek idea of sparagmos or fragmentation (as in the Bacchae), were all very pertinent I think....also the element of satyr play in the tragedy, the feeling of celebration amid suffering and critique....

It was also though a very American play, a very national play. One thought of Tony Kushner's subtitle for Angels in America, "A gay fantasia on national themes', and that could apply to Abdoh's play (written maybe slightly earlier  as well, although Abdoh's vision is far more searing and radical, it makes Kushner look bourgeois while, far more economically, making many of the same points not only about racism and homophobia but about their cultural matrix and mythic valence. I am teaching Kushner this summer and will definitely let my students know of Abdoh as a complementary, yet more radical, counterpoint. The subject of the course is epic drama, and Abdoh's work, in its raw, intense, lyricism, can be seen as a sort of pocket epic, packing the punch of panoramic social critique without the discursive mega-pretensions of Kushner that, despite himself (and for all their moving and vision), can be seen as tying his vision back into Reaganite grandiosity. And indeed the figure of President Ronald Reagan is pertinent here. The cathartic moment of the play was the revelation of a prone, wax-like figure of  Reagan, gazing mindlessly on the action; this theatrical touch expressed all the polemical fervor of Kushner's anti-Reaganism while making it more visceral and more profoundly accusatory to the audience: You, hypocrite lecteur, mon sembable, mon frère. 

 I felt totally repelled the first ten minutes, mesmerized for the rest. It was the same feeling that had been transmuted from a curse into a blessing. This is so much more a bass for theatrical exultation than a stance of bland, polite acceptance ab initio. The stage, an oblong rectangle that a spectator directly confronting the stage could not see entirely,  was fascinating as not seeing it all put the spectator in an unaccustomed position. Usually as a viewer you have the perspectival advantage over the actors. But here it was more like being in a real place having to look around.

Of course  none of these students were anything but babies or perhaps even alive at the time of the events and attitudes the play describes. They showed astonishing facility in immediately adapting themselves to the play, adhering to roles so quickly and reflexively--and the roles were not traditional roles but speakers, stances, perspectives. And their rendition of a very topical play made it not just an adaptation but a regeneration, a reanimation, an appropriation.....Abdoh's family and loved ones were represented in the audience and apparently approved of the work precisely in its sense of adaptation, that the work was not just archivally tied to the living body of its author but could be shifted, redeployed, had what textual scholars call mouvance. This adaptability being the essence of practice is, to me, what theatre and literary criticism, as acts, have most in common....

Friday, May 13, 2011

Risky Meditations

This is a performance review written late in 2007 that for various reasons never saw publication, so I post it here.

Risky Meditations: Big Dance Theater’s The Other Here at Dance Theatre Workshop, September 28, 2007. Sam Kim’s dumb dumb bunny at The Kitchen, October 20, 2007. Joyce S. Lim’s Stolen at Danspace/St. Mark’s Church, October 26, 2007.

By Nicholas Birns

The Other Here was first put on in New York City at the Japan Society (which commissioned the work) in February 2007. Created by Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar, it is drawn from disparate sources, including short stories by Masuji Ibuse, seventeenth-century Okinawan dance, modern Okinawan pop music, and transcripts of a US insurance convention. “The Other Here” mixes not only past and present but literary and popular, and, crucially, the traditional Honshu of Ibuse’s stories and the vernacular Okinawa of the music and dance.

The performers, using an eclectic array of gestures, postures, and symbolic language, convey a tone at once arch and plangent. The deceased Nampachi Aoki bequeaths Medhi a carp. Medhi then attempts to sell insurance to Aoki’s widow. The carp is an image. on a small, portable screen. Medhi promises he will never kill it. But it is not alive. It is a mediated presentation. The performers treat the ‘carp’ as a joke gift that becomes meaningful as it is evoked by demonstration. In a more comic strand of performance. Yosuji (Molly Hicock), a lackadaisical servant, is reprimanded by his employer: “a chastisement, particularly in a remote area like this, is taken very seriously.”

All this is conducted in a style at once nostalgic and jocular; the performers clearly put on their personas and do not try to render an authentic or deep self, but they also do not totally make light of the material, often moving slightly more slowly than a normal rate as if to emphasize the gravity of their approach to the situation. We then see Yosuji receiving a private, confidential letter. After trying, in vain, to get others to read it aloud for him, h finally learns his contents; that his wife has heard that he has been chastised for ‘not giving proper service’ Yosuji’s wife (Jennie Mary Tai Liu), wearing a conical hat of the stereotypical Asian peasant, weaved her way onto the scene, clicking and undulating. The hinge between the two layers is the character of Medhi, played by Lazar. Medhi is trying to sell insurance to the widow of Nampachi Aoki. This provides a window on the modern-day level where insurance vending is conducted not on the level of neighborly individuality but on the level of corporate hard sell.

The insurance convention is presided over by an unctuous master of ceremonies (Jess Barbagallo) who is sprayed with bubbles as a man with a parasol walks by, yet is undaunted in her motivational, can-do rhetoric. These rousing speeches are modes of performance; as a woman interrupts the master of ceremonies (Jess Barbagallo), a figure in a white shirt at the balk of the space emulates the gestures, as if in a mirror. The insurance conventioneers are urged to be silent for fifteen seconds: “The one who talks first leaves”. Silence is posited as a sales tool, “it gives clients time to think. Silence says I care.” Silence is seen as a way of continuing noise by other means,

Barbagallo’s role is made deliberately androgynous (even more so than Hicock’s Yosuji). Resembling, in demeanor, a cross between Laurie Anderson and Michael J. Fox, Barbagallo, as master of ceremonies, answers questions from individual salespeople; Steve from King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, is afraid to make cold calls. Here, salesmen, contrary to popular stereotype, are disseminators of myth, exuding a mythical largeness, even a mythical preposterousness.

There was a tension between discipline of corporate mentality (the head of the insurance firm) and the publicity which the corporate culture needs to advertise itself (the master of ceremonies). Corporate propaganda is given a kind of independence from its source by its performative qualities. Yet we are reminded that work is also servitude in both agrarian and corporate levels. The thrust is satiric with respect to domination. But there is also the awareness that the choreographers and performers are, in their own way, practiced in their craft and being measured by the audience.  The ‘master’ of ceremonies is not a master in the sense that Medhi is. She exists to publicize a hierarchy in which she does not make the decisions.

The voiceover says “What would you want to see happen in our world if anything you wish could happen would come true?” But this vision of realized dreams can only tantalize the insurance workers, though their world ostensibly is not bounded by the limits of Medhi and the Yosujis. The contrast of the insurance level with the Medhi level juxtaposes patterns of domination in former and present societies. But modern insurance raises the stakes in its quantifying of risk. It mounts a calculable riposte to the question, raised by a voiceover in the performance, “Are you going to die?” But on the agrarian level, as a red-robed man sings at a table behind the screens in front of which the master of ceremonies had stood, risk is seen as an act of love, not a materialistic variable. Similarly, when Yosuji is reprimanded by the voiceover for taking a nap in the daytime, it is done in a sardonically understanding way, inciting an underlying compassion.

Movement is the grammar in which these emotions, positive and negative, are expressed. Reverent acolytes gather around the insurance magnate, at first subserviently revering, then dancing in exhilarating, perhaps subversive steps. The dance steps had a hip-hop quality, as if hip-hop were the approximate outcome of an American-Asian cultural hybrid. When the action veered to the primeval level in the second half of the performance, the actors spoke in a kind of singspiel, reminiscent of some of the Talking Band’s performances of the late 1970s, such Pedro Paramo and Kalevala. In both cases, the performances, partially or totally basing their material on literary sources, pitched their voices in an intermediate zone between singing and talking so as to achieve a mode that seemed premeditated but not ‘bookish’. In its specific cultural mix, “The Other Here” was reminiscent of the Theatre of a Two Headed Calf’s punk-rock production of  Drum of the Waves of Horikawa at HERE, which premiered slightly later on in the fall 2007 season, as well as of the Decemberists’ 2006 album, The Crane Wife.

The Other Here celebrates the meaning that disparate elements can take on if ordered in a suggestive and significant way. The mourning for Aoki teeters on the brink of joy, a ’wake’ in the sense that an acknowledgment of death can also be an awakening. Interludes of pure dance and exuberant music stand out as lyric pauses that became opportunities for rejoicing. The overt mentions of Jane Shaw, the sound designer, and Hicock supply a metadramatic quality that is reeled out with flair and zest. When Jennifer Tipton’s lighting—done in a style that even a casual dancegoer would recognize as hers—is raised on the audience, we too also feel the sense of fun even as, earlier, the raised lighting made us feel we were as vulnerable as the insurance acolytes.

At the end, an inspirational maxim from St. Francis of Assisi was uttered, followed quickly by the saucy retort, “That’s great, Frank.” This irreverence dissipated any sentimental reaffirmation of spiritual plenitude, but did not simply connote irony or anticlimax. Indeed, the spirituality of the piece was hammered home in a visceral way by the evident fun the performers were having, as seen in how the metadrama reaffirmed the jocular ecstasy of the performance rather than puncturing it.

Sam Kim’s dumb dumb bunny gives us a depersonalized, meaninglessly savage world where people, possessed as zombies, laboriously try to attain human vulnerability. A giant, jungle-gym like metallic structure (by Mimi Lien) loomed ominously over the center left of the performance space. As the audience contemplated the multi-tiered edifice, abruptly roiling motion heralded two columns of performers emerging single file. Liz Santoro climbed the edifice, followed by Miriam Wolf. Others assumed stationary positions as the music reached crescendo, erupting into a disco beat. The disco sound, and the campy portent of the scene, called to mind Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. The metal edifice never dominated the action, but always seemed to watch over the fray. It was just peripheral enough to attract only some of the audience’s attention and to provide these performers perched upon it with an angle of perspective from which to view the goings-on.

Santoro and Wolf began flopping on the ground with a combination of discipline and abandonment. Ripples of light (by Michael Stiller) in back surrounding the space constituted a fade effect that correlated with the staccato intermittence of the action. Wolf pouted in a way that elicited laughter. The tableau gradually becomes more static, while the movement becomes more boisterous. Santoro gyrated suggestively while Kim moved more sedately.  As the movement became more animated, the soundtrack attenuates. (The in-and-out quality of the soundtrack is reminiscent of Susan Rethorst, with whose company Kim has danced). At first we hear brief intervals silence in-between musical sections, voids that gradually lengthen until silence becomes the dominant note of the latter half of the piece. At first, athleticism seemed the keynote for the movement, as the performers moved with a highly geared regimen a la Elizabeth Streb. Dancers trooped on and off with the efficiency of an offensive/defensive shift in sports.

But this well-oiled physicality is not meant to show off the forceful movements of the dancers. It indicates constraint and a loss of personality in a zombie state. In the latter part of the piece, though, there was a conspicuous physical energy, which correlated with the growing role of silence. Santoro is hunched, crouched, amid utter silence, followed cheekily by techno-pop music.  She is followed in her entry from the coulisse by Kim who gradually strode out into the space, An erotic wrestling match, twisting and tortuous, between Wolf and Michael Helland suddenly erupted on the right of the space, while another couple moved more awkwardly and in a less invested way, as if they were rag dolls.

Meanwhile, a fifth performer sat motionless within jungle gym, unperturbed, a sixth lay prone, face down on floor. The non-wrestling couple (David Velasco and Kim) roll each other over, as if trying but failing to move forward. Motion was dramatized, but rest’s prospect remained a factor in the frenzy. The grappling agon of Wolf and Helland dominated the action, but silence as well as the pressing and flopping of the other dancers made the agon seem as much a mode of bodily discipline, or of zombie-like possession, as a cathartic release. Just as the metallic structure was sometimes a play-space, sometimes a cage, the rote movements of the performers, sometimes parodic, yet spoke to a sense of trauma, at the end resembling the twitching motions of a fit.

dumb dumb bunny portrayed sheer embodiment—the same discipline that enables their deft physical movements seems to be a regimentation of which they are trying to break out. Even the and gestures frequently made by the performers seem a groping towards signification. At the end, Helland and Wolf do seem to display more rapport, as if hints of acknowledgment are present. But dumb, dumb bunny portrays bodies operating in a mute void, adrift in a hard-edged dislocation which Kim limns to frighten and to warn.

Joyce S. Lim’s Stolen was dominated by a large screen composed of thousands of intricately woven strings, A series of tiered, horizontally layered sets of string, with several on top of the foreground and one in the background. In front, a wooden stool, containing a head of a dead fish with its eye visible, stood on the left front side of the space. On the right front side was placed a transparent Plexiglas mini-pylon, with pebbles (a motif which was to play an important role in the piece) scattered behind it and halos of warm yellow light (by Severn-Clay Youman), propelled from the back of the space surrounding pylon and stool on an otherwise darkened tableau.

A woman in what seemed a white terrycloth spacesuit pours water and (as the audience had been warned) a live fish into the Plexiglas pylon. (The fish was conceivably a carp, establishing continuity with The Other Here).  A disembodied male voiceover began to intone disjointed phrases in English, such as “we are in party preparation,” followed by utter silence and stillness, and then, after an interval, more pouring of water into the pylon. Lim then knelt and appeared to knead material on the floor immediately in back of the pylon. The disembodied voice resumed, saying ‘Paul checked the oil’. The incongruity between the air of improvised ritual on the space and these media-standard announcements made one wonder if the transfer of the fish to the pylon was a parable for cultural adaptation or transformation. (Lim has indicated that the piece’s title refers to cultural borrowing.)
The space then became nearly completely dark, other than its far left, which was illuminated from the back, as a small projector-like light source bored forward. Light patterns (designed by Kwi-Hae Kim) then began to ripple in scattered cascades across the string structure, which became a sort of screen.

Several performers marched in, single file, from the left, eventually turning onto the center, new ones materializing as their predecessors paraded forth onto the space, for an eventual total of five. The performers were wearing beige robes with brown or white tunics over them. The light on the space dimmed, leaving the string-structure visible only in profile. One performer falls ritualistically on the ground at the far left of the space. Lyrical music (by Michael Gardiner) began as performer moved her arms and legs, tentatively turning around, as others also began to move. The sound effects became increasingly mechanical, evoking the bursts and grinding of machines, verging on an industrial-rock sound. Pebbles are rolled with aggressive abandon on the floor: a game of chance, a casting of lots, or a consultation of oracles. A performer releases pebbles from her tunic onto the ground.

The industrial noise then became sharper, generating a sense of asperity and anxiety. Merceditas Mañago-Alexander gave a raised hand-gesture towards the ceiling, then extended her hand downward like a claw as noise unfurled and pebbles racketed. An upsurge in the rate and intensity of the performers motion ensued; in general, the pace and movement of the performers had a sense of waxing and waning. This paralleled seasonal indications: the string at the beginning seems a kind of snow, the intricate material technique mimicking a natural process. Then Stolen seemed to pass through the turmoil of summer and the melancholy of autumn before hinting at the promise of spring. At the ‘autumnal’ midpoint of the piece, the string became ever more a screen, and the light projected on it a kind of video. Similarly, the random sounds became much more cohesive, more of a score.

Suddenly the mood of the piece became more savage. A rippling gong supplies a call to attention, a summons to a greater seriousness and sense of consequence. A performer, mouth gagged, snapped her fingers, bows, crawls, and then tiptoes coyly across the floor. Lim kneels over the stool, at first seeming to knead or cook the fish head in front of her (in the glass bowl) and then actually reaching into the bowl and eating it. The eating in front of the audience was striking. In an era when nudity and even fairly overt sexual activity is routine in New York dance concerts, the actual eating of food seemed to violate one of the few remaining taboos of what can be done in performance. That the eating was quickly followed by an unexpected, and, again, for dance concerts, rare outburst of actual, intense physical violence—not just the miming of violence in dance gestures--fortified this sense of disruption and challenge. Occasionally, Lim pants, seeming exhausted, and then picks and eats more of the fish head.  The clear polarity between the live fish on the left and the dead, eaten fish on the right indicated contrasts between the product and its appropriation.

This metaphorical contention was juxtaposed with the shockingly literal when, replacing an attendant performer who had been reverently watching the eating of the fish from a deferential ancillary posture, three performers stride forward, one bows down to honor Lim. Unexpectedly, Mañago-Alexander begins repeatedly beating and attacking Lim, striking fifteen blows onto her back. A couple of times, Lim sprawled forward, toppling into the stool, apparently conclusively beaten, but then raised her back again only to suffer more blows from Mañago-Alexander.  Mañago-Alexander had overtones of a Zen master, indicating a teacher-student disciplinary action gone massively overboard. A flour-like substance is poured into the Plexiglas fish pylon as beating continues. Lim flails around, finally definitely collapsing as mournful music plays in the background and pebbles ripple across the space.

Although Lim and Mañago-Alexander were the principals, all three of the other performers (Andrea Johnston, Marya Wethers and Peggy Gould) had a solo. Indeed, solitude was a leitmotif of the piece despite the frequent physical interaction. The performers did not seem to relate to each other; the only act of true engaged is the violent assault, much as in dumb dumb bunny, and also in Ashleigh Leite’s intensely grim Crawl Space, seen the following week at Danspace. Lim and her fellow performers exited authoritatively, suggesting the parabasis in Greek drama, though not a chorus, but a closing musical chord ensued. Stolen‘s subtle gathering of gestures generated a mood, an affect, that took on a distinctive affect of its own.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Death of Don Juan

In 2009, I reviewed Elodie Lauten's The Two Cents Opera and I was delighted to see another work by her last night, The Death of Don Juan (directed by Robert Lawson and Henry Akona and playing at the Theater for the New City. Although the subjects of the two operas--the current  economic crisis and the waning days of the legendary amorist--could not be more manifestly different, in a way there was a common thread in that both were stories of a way of life that was no longer sustainable, that a lifestyle of avaricious greed and one of lascivious sexual appetite were coming to an end and approaching a moment of critical reflection, as the Owl of Minerva poked its head above the litter of wasted time and misguided braggadocio.

As Lauten's Don Juan says finally in his final parabasis, his great dirge:

"I am spent I am done There is no goodbye I am lost I am found There is no reply  I have loved
many times I have truly lived  I am deaf I am dumb I have lost my sight I am only human now"

Don Juan's sexual and moral transgressions are the diametrical opposite of Oedipus's--while the ancient king's sins were unintentional and monogamous, the modern lecher's are polygamous and knowing--but in both cases a true knowledge, a deeper knowledge, only intervenes after their illusions about themselves have been shattered.

The lighting, visual whirl-patterns (fractals of the sort associated with chaos theory_, costumes, and superb singing, dancing, and acting all made contributions to what was an exemplary instance of many worlds of creativity coalescing into a riveting, intense, cathartic experience that will not just absorb you, but make you think and feel. 

As with The Two-Cents Opera I feel bound to insist the appellation of opera is not gratuitous; this is not the conventional kind of opera, but it is opera. I have been listening to a lot of baroque opera lately, and the stylization of form, the brevity of the overall work, and yet the clear presence of emotion even if not the melodramatic emotion to which we are operatically accustomed is something Lauten shares with Handel and Carissimi. The music is perhaps closer to classical minimalism than the more overtly post-minimalist Two-Cents Opera; it has the intimacy of chamber music with the spiritual declarativeness of opera. Based on a complicated set of patterns both mathematical and astrological and psychological, both Eastern and western, it is both technological and mystical. Lauten seems to be saying we cannot do without either mathematics or spirituality, that to bifurcate our cultural outlook to only accommodate one is to be ipso facto cognitively impoverished.

This is a very busy time for many, with end of academic term, people scrambling to do stuff before they go away for the summer, and so on. Fortunately, the opera's run is a generous one, extending through May 22. Please take the time to see this short but emotionally intense piece. It is rare to see work that will genuinely be part of the cultural conversation in the next twenty years and The Death of Don Juan is certainly of that caliber. Buy tickets now!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Teaching bin Laden's demise

Taught two classes today, Theory and Shakespeare. I let in the bin Laden issue into Theory class but decided not to with Shakespeare. The Theory class probably went better but I just didn't feel like taking ten minutes away from Shakespeare and giving it to bin Laden, however joyously dead. It is a real tough call for a teacher, one does not want one's class to becpme CNN but on a day so momentous as this one wants to acknowledge the importance of it. Especially since my students were in middle school on 9/11/01 and have been living with this demonic presence and the trauma he caused--including that of the overcompensations of the US war on terror--all their lives.  I love Walter Benjamin, but he could spare ten minutes for such a big day and in any event the essay we were discussing, with the aestheticization of spectacle and so on, could be teased to include today's headlines. I hate to sound canonical, but Shakespeare is a different matter-especially since we were discussing the first tow acts of The WInter's Tale, which however searing, are not so in a 'political' way.