Northwest New Works 2013: Week Two, Main Stage

On the Boards wrapped their New Works Festival for 2013 on Sunday. The festival presents unique challenges to the artists, organizers and audiences. For the artists, courage is required as these works are experimental or partially completed, but expectations remain high. The organizers must then sequence and arrange four highly varied performances for the main stage. Finally, the audience is challenged to shift gears over the course of the night, allowing each piece to be judged on its merits, unburdened by what preceded it.

On the Boards did well for their part, and the audience remained duly engaged. The first two pieces on the main stage were the heaviest and ultimately the strongest of the night. In addition to the four performances inside, there was an installation performance outside that was worth a look. It was all worth the experience, and the New Works Festival remains a sell-out event for good reason, even if the criticism I offer sounds harsh. These are raw works, after all.

Reilly Sinanan and Matt Drews of Wood. Photograph by Tim Summers.

Reilly Sinanan and Matt Drews of Wood. Photo by Tim Summers.

Wood: Mortar & Pestle

Installation work is unpredictable in a public venue, and volatile subjects up this ante. Were On the Boards not just so removed from a busier thoroughfare, the installation Mortar and Pestle would have been rather disruptive to the public, and that disruption might have made it more successful. On the other hand, the work needs refining, so a limited, more receptive audience was good for a dry run.

“Dry run” is a somewhat ironic phrase here, as various forms of water torture were a central trope in the performance between three prisoners, their overseers, and a few other odd characters. The prisoners wore only white pants while the overseers each sported a dress shirt, black slacks and black suspenders—wisely chosen to suggest command and status without being too militant or literal. The first prisoner knelt beneath a wooden trough fixed to the railing of the stairs at the venue’s front. It was constantly refilled by an overseer, like a glum, solo Danaid. The water would leak onto the prisoner below as he unsuccessfully attempted to intubate himself with a long coil of rubber tubing. Meanwhile, another prisoner was forced into a small pen. A third told a groaner of a cop joke, received a pie plate full of sawdust to the face, then was led toward the street and put through humiliating poses and exercises while a snippet of his joke was played on a constant loop via megaphone.

These were clear connections with the “enhanced interrogation” employed by US intelligence and the disturbing force-feeding now occurring in Guantanamo during inmate hunger strikes. Such a reenactment in an urbane, mundane setting makes one more immediately aware of horrors committed “on our behalf” half a world away. However, any rage one might have felt was dulled by slapstick and jokes and other more theatrical elements that might have been striking elsewhere but felt peripheral or arbitrary here: e.g. two girls in cocktail dresses with solid wood boxes over their heads, moving slowly down the slope and back up. Perhaps I am missing something…

The overseers were nonchalant, taking bites from apples and looking distant if not implacable. Indeed the overseers were as much joylessly trapped in their roles as their prisoners—one role justified only by the existence of the other, grinding mutually to no end but a hooded waterboarding and a slow march up the hill, out of sight.

I won’t fault the attempt, for it was earnest and taxing, but it needs work. At worst, it could be accused of indulging the audience in a sense of false absolution for having recognized (in a most attenuated form) man’s inhumanity to man (especially “on our behalf”), but I don’t believe that would be fair. If so, the audience would be just as much implicated (and more cynical sorts would gleefully make that case from a place of no engagement at all). The ending felt right, however, with its ambiguity and futility, as the figures disappeared into the scenery.

The work would benefit from editing and a more public setting where an audience might be challenged. The former can be done, but the latter is questionable. Permits to stage a subversive act like this elsewhere might be hard to come by. The safety of the performers would certainly be cited as a concern, as violent reactions from a larger audience are possible. However, doubts would always linger that perhaps such a staging would undesirably remind the public what is happening out of sight. This is in spite of the fact that the performance could be taken on aesthetic terms alone, not as political commentary—but it inevitably invites such interpretation in the current climate. In any event, if the performance were rejected for being subversive, it would only further justify the need for such explorations. We can easily imagine such a stalemate; the work ends in just such a way.

 

Paul Budraitis: CLEAR BLUE SKY

The diffuse nature of Mortar & Pestle met its foil with the laser focus of Paul Budraitis’ solo performance, and likewise the abstracted unease in the former was followed by sucker punch of grief and despair in the latter. It begins with Budraitis perched atop a plywood box facing upstage to a projection of video from a low flying plane that—horrifyingly—banks sharply and begins to plummet, cutting to black as it nears the tree line. Budraitis climbs down into the wooden box through a hatch, and a new projection—presumably live and of the interior of the box—covers the exterior, such that the cracks of shredded wood roughen Budraitis’ face as he nears the camera, filling the box with a desperate glare. He announces that “this is a prayer.” Sunday’s audience gasped audibly as he placed a gun in his mouth, but stopped short of blowing his head off, put a knife to his veins, but did not open them, looped his belt around his throat and throttled himself, but not to death.

As narrator, he relates the story of Val, a man who lost his wife and daughter to a mid-air collision between their jet and a cargo plane. The tragedy unfolds through Budraitis’ skilled, detailed narration that never loses its suspense or dread though one rather predicts the tragedy from the outset. It is the consequence of many unfortunate circumstances, but most saliently the error of a flight control operator who gave faulty directions at the crucial, fatal moment. When the operator is acquitted of criminal negligence, Val kills him in front of his own wife and daughter. In the epilogue to this story, we learn that Val served his time and now serves in public office in his hometown, where his vigilante act was regarded as necessary, a way of restoring “a divine order.”

Budraitis narrates this story with such conviction and intensity, one cannot help but empathize with every individual, each at the whims of much larger forces and at last accountable for their actions. Morality is blurred, and one is left to question what order there is and how it can truly be restored when it is broken. Is the divine order really anything more than serial violence and loss? In the closed, claustrophobic chamber of the narration, it would seem so. The rough, unadorned box is an eloquent symbol of introversion and isolation, utility (a cargo crate?) and futility (a chamber for suicide), and the audience gets only a flattened impression of what occurs inside.

Another narrative follows, this time of a father who, upon learning that his son has been killed in action overseas, attempts to immolate himself in the military vehicle that brought the messengers to his home. The father survives, converts his truck into a mobile shrine to his son, and tours the country, surviving on alms because this shrine to the departed is—he insists—all he has left.

These narrations are based on real events. The connection between them seems faint at first, but united by grief and a loss of self, the two fathers show two possible paths following loss. In the former, vengeance is taken and—after the system of justice has deemed the individual rehabilitated—the avenger becomes part of the system of governance. In the latter tale, there is no individual to be blamed, and the father steps not just outside the system of justice and governance, but of commerce and productivity. Strangely, the two men find new purposes—avenging and bearing ghosts respectively—and juxtaposed they are complementary symbols of the willful continuation of mayhem versus the non-violent hope for future peace. Quite a piquant performance for Father’s Day (and a coincidence, I think).

The uneven length of the narratives made the performance feel abridged, but the idea of a much longer program of such relentless gravity is deeply unappealing and would numb the audience. Frankly, Budraitis may already accomplish that. His narrator is stuck in a box, listening to recordings of the dead, at last emerging again to more of the opening footage as he announces a desire to escape into some place of peace. This is the ambivalent way out of despair—a sort of oblivion. But that brings us back to the opening “suicides,” which in the light of what follows only become more gratuitous. They sting and assault. They adumbrate the despair that follows, but in hindsight they seem either the flaw of an unhinged narrator who himself has yet to put the pieces together or a personal cry for help from the artist. I would do away with them.

Budraitis gives a strong performance and interesting character studies. However, in this performance the unhinged narrator is weaker than the characters he relates—neither impartially delivering his message nor revealing his own character despite his fervor. He becomes an undifferentiated spirit of despair—or worse yet a dramatic crutch for those who can’t decide for themselves how to feel about what they hear. I doubt that was the intention, and it wouldn’t take much to hone the work.

 

The New Animals. Photo by Tim Summers.

The New Animals. Photo by Tim Summers.

The New Animals: Tre (where were you)

Grief follows grief with this new work from dance troupe The New Animals, but rather than internalized and isolated, this is grief expressed constructively, transmuted through art. What is exorcised is the spirit of grief even as the playful, joyful spirit of the departed is, to paraphrase the group’s statement, “invited back on stage.” The performance happened just days short of the fifth anniversary of the murder of Joe Sodd III, who was celebrated and mourned in this piece.

The piece was playful but aggressive from the start with a rap (lyrics by Notorious B.I.G.) delivered by Sean Tomerlin as the other members frolicked athletically. A line of plastic red cups upstage were used to make toasts between performances, which were always creative and interesting to watch—skillful solos and pairings with a street sensibility. There was a pervasive party atmosphere that revealed a genuine bond between the performers. As with all truly skilled dance troupes of this idiom, the choreography by Markeith Wiley kept the group unified while still allowing individuality among the performers. The lighting design of Meg Fox was well executed to enhance these individual flourishes, to the very end when stacks of red , downturned cups are placed in three lines, an impermanent and poignant memorial for the late Tre.

It was a solid performance. By the time it culminates in a full evening performance this October at Satori Group’s TheLab@Inscape, I believe it will be a highly polished work. It was definitely one of the highlights of the night, not simply because of its celebration in the face of tragedy, but for the passionate fluency of all four performers.

 

bobbevy: This is how we disappear

It’s interesting, but perhaps unflattering to say that the dancing duo’s hair made the biggest impression in the first half of this performance—the foil of the flowing free hair of Jessica Hightower, whipping at center stage and the tight, immobile curls of Jesse Berdine pacing a rectangle on the margins. At back, an animation of endless rows of strange trees moved in perfect parallax, as if one’s view was drifting toward stage left, parallel to a glowing horizon beneath a starless sky. The trees trunks were flat, cut out, glowing from within like malformed neon tubes and topped by umbrella-shaped canopies of tightly packed, stubby branches. For lack of much else stimulation, this top-heavy, bristly aesthetic seemed to direct attention to the dancers’ heads.

Unfortunately, this did not make the listless movements any less dull, or hide the lack of polish. It’s an excerpt of a new work, so it would be unreasonable to demand perfection yet, but one didn’t see or hear much to engender enthusiasm for a longer, finished work. The soundtrack was novel for the first ten minutes—or maybe it was five. I have no idea how long it lasted, but it felt long. The most interesting climactic moment came about halfway through, when the static and volume of the soundtrack’s electronic pulse peaked, the dancers stood still facing upstage, and the projections of the strange forest sped toward the horizon at blinding speed. The trees shed their leaves and disappeared, leaving swirls of red, orange and yellow dots in two distinct clouds that (would ideally) mimic and stay with the dancers. That was clearly the attempt, but they aren’t yet in synch.

If the longer work is to become a test of endurance and one’s attention span, then it would be nice to see some virtuosity, as if the dancers cared. I remain vaguely curious to know what else the group has planned, because as it stands now, the way the dancers will most easily disappear is between the shutting eyelids of the audience.

 

The Satori Group: The Land is Always Unknown

The evening ended on a literal sour note, but at least the performance kept to the common theme of mortality and provided another bad joke to bookend the performances, punning exercise and exorcise. Sadly, that was a highpoint in the pan-handed script, which sounded like a Dada collage of pages from Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner. The chorus (of ghosts, explains the program) sang well enough, but the lead Greta Wilson sang flat the whole time and her on-again-off-again attempt at a southern accent was even more grating. I really wanted to like the character Ruth played by Abigail Nessen Bengson, who sang very well indeed, but she quickly devolved into the same obscure babbling. The motto of the New Works festival is to come without expectations, exhorting the audience to be open to the experience of raw works, but this really tested the limits of that motto with how obtuse it all was.

Satori can do much better. This piece is presumably in its infancy, though the sets seem to be further along in development than the performances. (That isn’t saying much. I didn’t care for the sets either.) One can commend all of the performers for their courage in presenting new ideas, some of which simply aren’t stage-ready and are subject to change. One might also, in this case, commend the audience for politely bearing with them. But as for myself I can still thank them. It was so bewilderingly poor that I was under no threat of dwelling on the darker, sadder subject matter from earlier in the evening. Again, On the Boards did well with the sequencing, sending the audience home on a major chord—even if as an act it fell flat.