I’m not a theater expert; I’m comfortable saying only so much about the first half of Collaboraction‘s Sketchbook closing day all-fourteen-shorts marathon I saw this afternoon.
(I wanted to stay for the entire show, but as it was going to run close to five hours and I had huge piles of blogging and laundry waiting for me at home, I peaced out at intermission. The seven pieces I did see, though, were overall engaging and tight.)
Right off the bat, let me name a few things I love: The Building Stage, where I hadn’t been since the premiere of My Name is a Blackbird, is a terrific space. Non-standard house arrangements remind you that norms of theater architecture are literally ancient and don’t necessarily support new work in the realm. Neon green and black are a fantastic combination, and if you’re going to design a room using that as your palette, fine by me. Reduction of paper usage wherever possible is walking the walk; my visit to Sketchbook involved none whatsoever (credits for each piece rolled on multiple screens immediately following and the complete program notes are available online).
Movement-based enough to be relevant to this blog were Joseph Ravens’ Kattywampus, The Gist by Mark Comiskey, and Carolyn Hoerdemann’s and Atalee Judy’s collaboration Fix Your Teeth Bitch.
Kattywampus is a solo a few minutes in length Ravens intends to read as a glimpse of something neverending; even without his explication (in press materials) that would have been perfectly clear. He’s dragged into and out of the performance space on a disc of white artificial grass, dropped off short of the center of the floor. The not-quite-there arrival turns out to set a tone appropriate to the piece: The carpet is a purgatory of sorts, a prison in which Ravens, wearing a giant replica of his own head created by a mascot costume manufacturer, is trapped for, presumably, eternity. Compositionally it’s closed to cycles: To an electronic music score lush and looping, reminiscent of Owen Belton and Boards of Canada, Ravens rotates atop the disc executing movements from a menu of compulsive scratching, large slicing gestures, sitting in wait, and removing from his flesh-colored tights “knobby blobs,” heavy hunks of metal and rock covered in wool in vibrant colors. They’re like odd iron fruit from another world, or organs extracted from the viscera of a cartoon character. He offers them to the audience for a brief moment before they drop with a muted thud, discarded and forgotten.
The head is so huge that a comic air never really evaporates; it’s effective in tempering the severity and impenetrability of the proceedings. Also, the knobby blobs form on his body a misshapen, giant tumor; there’s a sense that his health has gone sour and the mutation, rather than congenital, is the result of past decisions whose irreversibility tortures him (not enough blobs are removed during the performance for the tumor to noticeably decrease in size, which casts it as malignant). The shuddering, desperate intensity of his guestures is obviously controlled and intentional—although bizarre, Ravens projects an aura of calm deliberateness, even in the way his heavy breathing is clearly visible. It’s a terrific, brave and succinct work, something like a David Cronenberg short costumed by Rei Kawakubo.
Comiskey’s The Gist is similar as far as being an unsettling hoot. Three characters meet around a table in front of a large television with a live- and recording-fed camera mounted on top. I recalled Lily Tomlin, Alan Alda and Glenn Fitzgerald as the Schlichtings in David O. Russell’s Flirting With Disaster as well as Atom Egoyan’s Family Viewing and the “bunny sitcom” scenes in David Lynch’s Inland Empire. Slow-boiling tension erupts into a dense, exciting burst of choreography where incidental props—a bowl of oranges on the table—are suddenly thrust center stage and imbued with some unexplained power and significance. As I explored in my last piece an atmosphere of unresolved tension and simmering three-way emotional violence, it was easy to slip right into the pregnant gaps Comiskey, Laura T. Fisher, Michael A. Macias and Brian Shaw left in their narrative.
Fix Your Teeth Bitch is a twisted love song to a woman’s dentist in the vein of “Hurt So Good.” In voiceover, Hoerdemann narrates the overlapping sensations of fear, pleasure, powerlessness and delicious submission intrinsic for her to a routine cleaning. Writhing in agony/ecstasy, Hoerdemann’s dentist’s chair (beautifully heavy and vintage) sits behind a floor on which are projected images of clear blue water, a picturebook blue sky, and first-person looks at the masked face of a polyglot D.D.S. that holds all the cards. Hoerdemann eventually leaves the chair for a solo dance choreographed by Judy that doesn’t necessarily add to the images seen until then but also doesn’t detract from their potency; More importantly, she and Hoerdemann are obviously on the same page, which is in the end what gives Fix punch and clarity.
The other four works I saw—The Big Tent, What I Am Supposed to Be?, Who Put the Dead Bird in my Mailbox and The Dreaded Zeppelin were all enjoyable, aided no doubt by a terrific mood in the room of investment, excitement and pride. Next year I’ll definitely catch wind of the festival early enough to see it all.