Aya Ogawa's Oph3lia, whose opening coincides with that of the new and improved HERE Arts Center, is a brilliant exploration of suspension--in time, in space, between words, and between bodies. So much so that walking out of the theatre last Thursday night I was rendered, much like the first Ophelia in this Murakami-esque work, silent.
Reimaging Ophelia within a contemporary society, the play introduces three different Ophelias, each with her own individual story of marginality but also following a through line between them so that the Shakespearean hysteria accorded Hamlet's jilted escalates in perfect proportion throughout the scenes. The first Ophelia, Shizuka (Ikuko Ikari), is a Japanese woman in Manhattan, spatially and linguistically overwhelmed by the clutter and sputter of the city around her; the second, Cissy (Eunjee Lee), a Korean student in a school in China for non-Chinese girls; the third (Marueen Sebastian), a translator between a US-based production company and a Latin American director and his muse. In each scenario, the Ophelia becomes, as HERE dramaturge Pete McCabe writes, "an outsider within [...] outsiders"; yet even as Shizuka's silence stretches into Cissy's ecstatic emanation into the translator's forcing out of others' words, it is not Ophelia who is out of sync but rather all the other, secondary characters creating a suffocating field around her.
There is a sense of the posthuman going on here, or perhaps, more accurately, transhuman (though I'm sure Tweedster will call me on this as it's his personal fetish more than mine): Shizuka adopts silence to forget a self that is already forgotten by the city she barely inhabits and Cissy is shy, antagonistic, effusive amid the schoolgirls who themselves act out all the possibilities of girl-ness including the self-repression (and refusal of it--loved bad-girl Kate [Magin Schantz] who reveled in her nastiness) that insinuates itself during the trials of adolescence. Each enacts strategies of survival that exceed prescribed limitations while also denying something integral to survival. The translator becomes simultaneously an Ophelia undone by the contradictions within her father's, brother's, and lover's words and a more symbolic examination of what it means to translate not only text into play but this particular text, and this particular character, into something anew. I first knew Ogawa when she was playing J.R. Oppenheimer in International WOW Company's The Bomb and was amazed then by her presence. She is still very much present as writer and director in Oph3lia, and it is certainly her transpositional voice, in all its own emanations, that links the three renderings.
We spend a third of our lives sleeping. For the lucky ones, that means we spend a third of our lives on mattresses, including a whole host of life experiences with it: dispelling the nightmares and monsters under the bed, control over physical and mental distractions like wetting the bed, many of our first sexual experiences. "Bed" connotes a plethora of emotions and impulses: comfort, relaxation, privacy, relief, restlessness, eroticism, suspension, safety, escape. They are marketed to us in the form of these emotions, and many of us have become somnambulant cyborgs, buying into fancier bedding technologies like the Tempurpedic, Sleep Number, or Craftmatic, helping the U.S. spend $6,700,000,000 on mattresses in 2007 alone. Most of us were born on a mattress; most of us will die on a mattress. Taking this under consideration, it’s remarkable that beds aren’t the subject of more critical and aesthetic inquiry. (The one example I could think of, The Princess and the Pea, is not about mattresses at all; it’s like saying Rambo is about a grenade launcher.)
But Freefall dance takes this challenge up in their lovely new piece, Lie, Lay, Laid at the Walkerspace. Placing the audience above and around the performance space, reflecting the voyeurism of anatomy theatre, or perhaps Grotowski’s The Constant Prince (1965), the audience looks down into the performance space, complete with four performers and a whole bunch of mattresses. The piece opens with the performers entering the audience, offering apples to each spectator, implicating us in the action (hey, I use a mattress and eat apples, too!), then perching themselves atop a tall pile of mattresses and engaging in what can only be called an “apple orgy” (which I believe is a Tweed-original coinage, but in matters of sex and food, one can never be sure).
The bulk of the piece is careful choreography, not only of the dancers (Lynn Brown, Lynn Marie Ruse, Uta Takemora, and Carlton Ward), but of the mattresses, which become dancers as well, manipulated about the space as conscientious actors, animated portrayals of their roles in our physical and mental health, as well as vehicles for sexual and romantic encounter and embodiments of the nightmares they can effect. The dancers tumble in a clever shift from choreography (by Brown and Ruse) in the conventional outward sense that one would expect from a proscenium performance, to the specialized upward trajectory the space entails. And no stone is left unturned: now sexual, now playful, now mournful, the dancers beautifully evoke an overwhelming gamut of sensations, aided by the simple but wondrous lighting design by Jay Ryan and the wonderful, eclectic live accompaniment by Ljova and the Kontraband. The fusion of all these elements leads to a surprisingly moving piece overall.
And although the performers avoid falling into overly saccharine moments, there is one gap that I found interesting, to return to the apples. The fruit, a not-so subtle gesture to sexuality and gender, pointed to how the piece was very much rooted in traditional notions of gender roles. Considering the apple’s allusive invocation of the Fall, with Eve as the second-thought-cum-catalyst, the performance did little to problematize this idea, as seen in the costumes, with the women dressed in flappers and fishnets, with scarlet red tank tops beneath, while the men are decorously desexualized in plain white t-shirts and grays shorts or pants. Add to this a slightly uncomfortable scene where Brown and Ruse reenact their earlier erotic encounter by forcing Takemura and Ward to do the same, like puppets, and the piece simply stages the transmission of these stereotypes, instead of really working through them.
But what Lie, Lay, Laid lacks in this critical gender engagement, it more than makes up for in earnestness and commitment. While an incredibly effective and affective piece in general, it’s not afraid to be messy, uncomfortable, and fun (much like the better experiences in our own beds). To be sure, I saw the dress rehearsal, so perhaps the dancers were more willing to admit mistakes, laugh, and smack each other in a realization of claustrophobic space. For the sake of the sincerity they brought out so well, I hope the actual run retains that spirit of interchange and imperfection to prove that this is the reason why, not despite, Plato utilized a bed to illustrate the sublime.
For nine wonderful summers now, the vastly underrated Axis Company has sent one person into a violent, terminal coma. Figuratively speaking, of course (although that would be quite the body art event, indeed!).
Much like the birds migrating southward, the Northern Lights, and Burning Man, the annual production of Hospital is one of the few reasons to stay in New York for the summer. Despite the morbid premise, this serial performance piece (in four parts over eight weeks) is part soap opera, part Beckettian wasteland (which I wrote about in a previous life of my own here). It is surprisingly bizarre, heartbreaking, and hysterical.
This year’s installment revolves around three “sandhogs,” that is, workers for the new water tunnel being built underneath New York City. (Begun in 1970, the project is slated to be complete by 2020.) These three spend their days digging, but today they are caught in a disastrous collapse, and the action takes place, supposedly, in the consciousness of one of them. Broken into its typical three-strain format, we are plunged into the world of the workers attempting to find their way “out,” the wonderful antics of three doctors and a nurse, and a run-in with some characters from Alice in Wonderland. Naturally.
Every year, I pray for the return of Laurie Kilmartin as the Nurse, and lo!, she has returned, in all her schizophrenic, pencil-loving assistant-ness. And this year, giving her a run for her money, is Edgar Oliver as the Mad Hatter. Heebie-jeebies ensue.
What’s remarkable about this series is that each episode stands on its own as a solid performance piece. While each one has the same characters and premise, you don’t have to tune into to find out who shot J.R., or watch a bunch of lame episodes to get to the Emmy-worthy ones. If anything, Hospital delights in its complete lack of resolution; where exactly is the traveler? Is he even in a hospital? How can the lunacy of the medical staff featured nearly every season go on without him? Will he emerge from a coma? This simple performance is striking in its potentially devastating allegory of an existential existence. Of course the choice of a hospital is the perfect locale, although the doctors also believe they run a “hotel,” which is a close second, perhaps an airport or shopping mall being third. All of these have in common Marc Augé’s citations as “non-places”: uniform, in-between, foreign-yet-comfortable. Waiting places. This concept is beautifully reinforced by Kyle Chepulis’s set design, which is a tunnel of dirt and pipes, wearing away to reveal sterile, white tiles.
It’s important to note here that, while the Hospital series is typically welcoming to all audiences, I’d have to make the geeky analogy that Hospital 2008 is the Empire Strikes Back of the series; it’s much darker, much more introverted and subtle than previous incarnations. And while it may be just as brilliant, it’s certainly not as easy to dive into as in past years. This is no more apparent than in the Alice section, in which the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter, and the Queen of Hearts are played not as in the manic Disney film, but rather as listless, confused, and just as lost as the travelers themselves (they are projections of the subconscious ego, after all). And while these projections are made a bit too obvious by the opening film, which shows the audience how we got here, such as the cute girl becoming the Queen of Hearts (even drawing the card from the deck before a game), and the NYC water tunnel-Alice through the rabbit hole connection, I will definitely be returning to Axis to see what doesn’t happen next.
Synaesthesia becomes me. I'm all about the significance of the visual, indeed, corporeal, in music performance--too often relegated in critical speak to a purely aural experience--and, vice versa, the possibility of the sonic in visually based work. Scholars and artists far grander than I have challenged the affective boundaries of disciplinary dissent (John Cage, for instance, describes theatre as both of the eye and the ear), and it seems that one of the foundational aspects of modernism that seeps into the postmodern is the ability to confound sensory order.
Which is what made last night's two-part opener of the Issue Project Room's Floating Points festival unusually disconcerting: though offered stimulating visual points of reference, I kept wanting to close my eyes. Even as music, sound, and word floated above, around, and into me, the friction between the senses became an unexpected part of the performances.
The show opened with cellist Tianna Kennedy, guitarist Chad Laird, and an unfortunately unnamed percussionist/noisemaker, whose joyful and chaotic wanderings bumped against and away from the walls of the room a little bit like those pixelated balls in Pong. Occupying but never being so aggressive as to demand attention, their music seemingly coinhabits the space with the listener. This is emphasized by Issue Project's hyperdeveloped sound system, a "fifteen-channel installation of hemisphere loudspeakers" developed by Stephan Moore by which, as the space's website reads, "location is liberated as a musical dimension." The chairs were set up like miniature constellations throughout the space, dispersing our gaze distinctly away from the musicians; and while I miss the silo-shaped room the Issue Project used to have, this was a compelling way to mix up the more conventionally shaped warehouse space they currently occupy.
A collaboration between Vito Acconci (be still my freaky heart), Moore, and composer-performer-artist Zach Layton comprised the second half. Intended as a headphone piece, the piece involved Acconci reading a text self-conscious of its penetrating capacity via the strange intimacy enabled when we shut ourselves off to the outer world. His words, spatially manipulated by Moore and Layton, created "an architecture of music... an architecture of bodies." Our hearts "beat in tune" as we experience the never quite solid space of buildings and as they experience us. Chairs were this time in a sort of theatre-in-the-round formation and Acconci, standing at a makeshift lectern and lit by a desk lamp, was the focal center, but it was easier to experience the piece as intended with one's eyes closed. Sections of the piece opened with such instructions -- "Close your eyes," in part one; "Open your eyes," in part two -- but it was the instruction to the third section that was most intriguing.
"Close yourself in..." When Acconci spoke this instruction I wanted to curl up into myself -- not in a comforting way but almost protective. I wanted to fit my body into a box, like Kathy Dillon did for Acconci in Remote Control (1971), and hear him tell me what to do, what to feel; I wanted the brilliant creepiness of all those performances Acconci did in the '60s and '70s to happen here; and I wanted to love the experience even as I might not like what it did to me. I wanted becoming the affect, its past tense significant not because I'm thinking about the performance the morning after as it were, but because the performance itself existed in a sort of past tense for me.
At one point, early on in the piece, Acconci referenced his work in galleries and museums from the '60s onward, saying they were a "long time ago." I almost gasped at this moment of chronologic disjunct, a temporal stutter: These performances from that period, including Remote Control, BLINKS, the infamous Seedbed so unsatisfactorily reprised by Marina Abramovic, remain constantly new to me precisely because I didn't experience them, didn't have the chance to see them and to see him. What is a long time ago for the artist performing, is still right now for me reading and imagining. So seeing Acconci here, his bent body pushing and pulling against the words, was ghosted by the Acconci I've imagined, the Acconci I wrote into my dissertation, the Acconci I've seen onscreen. Though I wanted to close my eyes to experience the sound of his voice, I could not bring myself to close off the visual sound of his presence.
The juxtaposition of Kennedy et al and Acconci is an intriguing one,
not only in that it pairs experimentations in sound and music with
experimentations in sound and text, but that it transverses histories,
pairing the younger artists doing new things with the new things older
artists are doing. The strange, rendered familiar through documentation and critical record, becomes strange again, and this is, indeed, an eye-opening endeavor.
This year's Movement Research Festival is currently underway, and sharkskin girl's been moonlighting from obscenej to do some slow walking... Check out my post about Wednesday evening's guided meditation around Judson Church on the Critical Correspondence page, along with several delightful takes on each performance -- and definitely check out the performances going on throughout the festival.
“The Other precisely reveals himself in his alterity not in a shock negating the I, but as the primordial phenomenon of gentleness.” – Emmanuel Levinas
Four performers scramble to their positions. The topic, it appears, is “The Worst Way to Die.” Director Dan Safer, seated off stage right, equipped with a library lamp and stopwatch, rings a bell. Sean Donovan looks about frantically, desperately searching for his untimely end: “Oh. Man. Okay. Well, it starts with me being force-fed my own penis.” He then describes being raped by a variety of safari animals, last but not least by the horn of a rhino, which then parades him around the jungle. “With glee,” he smiles. The bell rings once more and all four launch into jerky barrel jumps around the stage.
This sadistic improv game is obviously a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the following fifty minutes of Vicious Dogs on Premises, now on at the Ontological, rotates this self-flagellation and endurance with some of the utmost candor and generous performance one can find. Anyone familiar with the work of Witness Relocation will recognize some of its signatures here: the chance operations testing the presence of mind and body of the performers, rough choreography, awesome soundtrack (particularly Nouvelle Vague’s cover of “I Melt with You” tonight), and themes of violence, love, and competition. Vicious Dogs is clearly continuing the project of the company’s last piece, Dancing vs. the Rat Experiment, where the wicked game-like atmosphere toys so much with the agency of the performance. And although the chaos isn't as great here, the performance is a much more mature, nuanced (yes, nuanced), and poignant type of chaos.
Each night, the performers draw a letter, from A to D, at random, and follow the instructions on a wipeboard placed at the audience’s feet, timed by Safer at random intervals, so that some moments last seconds, while others continue for painfully long. Heather Christian has less than a minute to explicate quantum physics, while Mike Mikos stalks an audience member slowly, approaching her with the face and gait of Nosferatu. The bell rings when he’s within inches of her, and he lets out a sigh and wags his finger, as if to signify, “I almost got you.”
What’s most delightful about Witness Relocation’s performances in general is that, despite the unpredictability and obstacles the performers are met with, they fight back with a sense of genuineness and compassion unmatched. This results in an ethical, almost communal experience with the audience, and even moments of violence become extremely tender. In one moment, Laura Berlin Stinger has to slap Christian. Christian signals for her right cheek, and Stinger continues over and over, trying to find the limit of what her partner can handle. “Oh, let’s do both cheeks at once!” Christian says excitedly. Stinger gazes at her in disbelief, but follows directions and hits. Hard. The audience gasps.
“Ow! Ow! Fuck! That was a bad idea!” This makes just as much sense as when Mikos interviews Donovan about his worst character traits, which turns into a therapy session about how essentially Donovan sabotages his relationships, in a rare quiet moment. The bell rings, and, as they scramble once more, Donovan can only mutter, “Wow, that was intense,” as he grabs a chair and freezes in a tableau vivant.
Both the slapping and interview are cut from the same cloth, illustrative of the sense of honesty, introspection, and, above all, dedication, that all four performers, helmed by Safer, give as a gift to the audience. If for no other reason, this is why Witness Relocation is a must see for anyone: if only we could all bring so much love and responsibility to our work, despite the entirely awful situations and worlds we’re constantly thrust into, exposed to, or see on the TV every day, life would be beautiful.