Monday, March 21, 2005

Cupola Bobber’s “Petitmal” & Walkabout Theater’s “Any Illusion: A Perversion of New England in One Act” @ PAC/edge

I experienced a solo-show by Seth Bockley, billed as Walkabout Theater’s “Any Illusion: A Perversion of New England in One Act”, and Cupola Bobber’s “Petitmal” (Stephen Fiehn and Tyler B. Myers) back to back on Saturday and thought it was a sweet double-feature.

Both pieces are created by dudes and they are very dude-ish works. Both present a great deal of text, are concerned with Christian myths and the relationships among people as we as God. Both shows are asking questions of society as well as investigating themselves. Both shows concern themselves with how images are projected and willed to be. They both left me with a sense that these pieces are about many things but mostly about what these particular boys dreamed of becoming in their adolescence.

Not that these works are childish or immature. Seth Bockley presented a thoughtfully acted narrative of characters and physical demonstrations within a tidy mise en scène. And I found the Cupola Bobber to be a very clever pair of artists with an urgency to find a place in cultural history and willingness to put out physical effort for their piece.

Any Illusion: A Perversion of New England in One Act

Seth’s work tracks the rise and fall of an “American Saint”. This character learns to divine using rocks at an early age and eventually becomes a prophet that travels during the course of the play from New England to the west. Set a ways back in America’s past but not presented as biography nor in a simple narrative, Seth morphs from character to character with a great deal of physical and vocal precision and presents splashes of conversations, internal monologue, and public oratory. The set is a wooden table, chair and box in the center of the stage with a half circle of rocks surrounding this set up. The rocks trail from the audience’s left to the rear of the stage wear they scatter. There were also three hanging ropes, two that would dangle a rock over each ear as he sat in the chair center stage and another that hung over the scattered rocks up stage. Either he uses these ropes to swing the rocks by his head at time or he would attach the box to rear rope, squat and set the dangling box swinging in a circle around him.

Many of Seth’s action involve the manipulation to the many small stones he keeps in his pockets. He pulls them out like little magic tricks, puts them away with a small ‘click’, drops them into the box with a ‘clack’ and taps them against the wooded table as he speaks. He uses them like puppets and wills personalities on them.

Seth’s stage to me was filled with natural objects (wood, rocks, rope, cloth) and while of course being sufficiently illustrative of an old-timey setting in created one of the fundamental contrasts with Cupola Bobber’s piece.


I reentered the theater for Cupola Bobber’s piece to now find three large square scrims set up forward on the stage. The show consists of many shadow, video and textual projections on these scrims as well as actions that physically move the center one. This minimalist configuration is emphasized at first with as initial projection of an empty slide projector slide creating an illuminated rectangle on the center scrim. Slowly more visual elements are introduced…a pair of reaching puppet hands with their fingers just not touching ala the Sistine Chapel, and then the full body shadows of two human figure nearly belly to belly (reminding me of the old performance art piece where Marina Abramovic stood belly to belly with her hubby, naked at a door of a museum forcing the visitors squeeze between them to enter), and then a slow repetitive text exchange like…

Left Screen – Hi
Right Screen – Hi
LS – Hi
RS – Hi
LS – Let’s Pretend
LS – Hi
RS – Hi

…and so on. Lights flicker on and off introducing and removing these elements and you can her the movements of the performers behind the screens. The pace is eventually broken with the introduction of twin figures running on treadmills, set apart (one on the right scrim, one on the left) but running towards each other. They have mics and scripts and proceed to read and run and become tired and sweaty. This much describes the piece pretty well for me; it is a frustrated movement towards each other, toward God (or in this case Kevin Bacon, more on that in a minute), and a text presentation that lists the minutia of their thoughts as they ponder the possibility of the revelation of authentic emotion, and such.

Of course it is a big complex piece and goes on…

The piece moves on to bring in several clever images and build at one point to a rather sublime construction where one figure is a tree, a fan is blowing into a mic on the floor and the panels have large S, K, Y projected on them. They perform further feats of endurance by one standing on the other’s back during one long exchange about emotions. And then of course there is the Footloose/Kevin Bacon video and dance sequence at the end.

Contrast and Compare

So back to just the materials…Seth is surrounded by natural objects and simple mechanical devices (pendulums mostly) while Cupola Bobber engages in contemporary plastic media and retro-mechanical devices like treadmills, overhead and slide projectors. Seth’s mechanics are rooted in simple physics where actions pivot around a single source, where Cupola Bobber deals with objects that can be rearranged, drawn from the junk consumer bins cheaply, electrified and are retro-ishly the materials of the indie-band/performance world. Materials of the Modernist vs. the Post-Modernist.

Seth and Cupola Bobber are also working in different orientations and to nice effect. Seth’s historical narrative presented with Modernist theater style techniques of collage, and a Modern’s concept of shifting identity that is ultimately rooted in a single self is a great vehicle for illustrating an individuals journey, the will to create, and the ethical/moral implications of these choices. Seth told me when I asked him why do this piece now that he wants to explore leadership, which is obviously relevant in the context of our current political administration and refreshingly unpolitical in its execution. Cupola Bobber’s dialogue is set in the cultural network of signs and signifiers, yada yada, and is seeped in self-reflective media and historical knowledge. Their angst is the inability to connect via any of the multitude of channels available and there sense of self is barely there except in lists of small private details and idle thoughts. Seth suggests the will to step aside from the network and lead and Cupola Bobber puts their heads down, endures, and hopes for revelation while remixing the world at hand for their amusement.

I have always wondered why a National theater has never sustained itself in the USA. Theater is a great format for exploring ethical and moral issues and concepts of national identity. Economically and politically film and media trumps theater as a contemporary academic discourse on power and as an agent for the exertion of power, but on the level of investigation of humans and their choices, theater, in a traveling format, with a relief from the need to make a buck, it seems could be a useful aspect of a democracy.

I also might comment, getting back to the performances, that in both of works use text elaborately but I ultimately tuned a great deal of it out. In both pieces, the visual, kinesthetic aspects pleased me greatly and the text either was so disorientingly complex or redundantly listed that I found other things to think about. Probably a second look would be worthwhile with either one.

Ultimately these pieces both were very boyish in a physical rambunctiousness sense but also in the yearning they put out. Both seek knowledge, a Christian construction of God, a clearer identity and question the world. Seth plays out the blessed hero, Cupola Bobber wants to be a cool band, make a few sweet records and maybe make someone cry during a guitar solo…pop hero.

Like a boy playing at superheroes this is familiar and rather archetypical it seems but both were mostly satisfying in execution. I hope Seth meets his guru and someone hangs a Cupola Bobber poster on the wall of his or her bedroom.


Cupola Bobber presented their show at last years PAC/Edge and at Links Hall for a time, but this is the first time I have seen "Petitmal". It apparently is more or less the same as previous versions and their infatuation with Kevin Bacon (KB) seems to be sustaining. I think I have heard them talk about KB in the past and they have some kind of fundamental directive in their collaboration that relates to him. While it is somewhat amusing to talk about this KB orientation from a distance, I found the Footloose/KB stuff quickly boring in the show. My shallow dismissal of this kind of orientation is that it feels very 90’s. My more thoughtful take is that this is an attempt by these guys to locate themselves in the center of pop culture as well as art history. This idea being based on the old joke/game about how all movies can be tracked by their degrees of separation to Kevin Bacon…thus placing KB directly in the center of some kind of ironic pop universe and basically a silly stand in for God. It seems by making work in relation to KB that Cupola Bobber seeks to place themselves in the center of the universe with GOD/KB or at least nearby as you can get in this kind of landscape. A kind of shallow pop search for meaning and truth in a shallow pop world that seems even emotionally defensive in its predisposition towards failure.

I had the feeling by the end that even though these guys were working so hard, sweating and bleeding, flickering their historical references at us, and so on, that all this was for nothing because there was some kind of unconscious lack of faith on their part in what they were doing. It is a shadow play. Yes, we are in Plato’s cave but in this case it seems like an excuse for something or a some kind of surrender. I can’t quite put my finger on it but it saddens me, not as social statement our pathetic world but as a sense of meeting someone who has lost their dog. They are putting up lost dog posters but don’t really believe they will ever see their dog again.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

To the boys.

Petitmal: So strange how they could be so compulsively tidy, and yet seem too messy to me. Those moments that Erik referred to as "divine" were indeed divine, emerging as they did from such disorder.

I fell asleep during a part in the beginning, during the treadmill bit. Was it because I was tired, or because it was boring? The success here was that you sucked me back in, just like that.

In the end, Petitmal is in my head far greater than I thought it was while my bum warmed a Studio 2 seat. All the messy is gone, and the elegance remains. Another question might be, What would the piece be without all the messy. Would the revelations be so meaningful with out it. Makes sense.

Any Illusion was the tightest performance that I have seen in a while. I think this PoPoMo girl is aching for some Modern sense-making. The anxiety of being alive today (from messy to saved, messy to saved) is too much. The Modern quest to find one's way in the world seems to offer a path. Thank-you Seth for offering.

March 22, 2005 11:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you make bold assertions (kb as god) and then continue to criticize and criticize. not helpful; if i disagree with your rather bold assertions, the following many paragraphs are wholly irrelevant.
also, you complain way too much...

March 28, 2005 10:29 AM  
Blogger Erik Fabian said...

i suppose i do make some bold assertions, they are my interpretation of the experience...i imagine there are others. feel free to flesh out your thoughts about the work here or elsewhere and let me know about it.

i liked the Cupola Bobber piece a lot and that is why i focused on the ideas i got out of the piece rather than the structural stuff. imho the structure worked really well for most of the show.

i know there are things that i leave out when talking about a big piece like this, i can't write this stuff forever. i hope i am not the only voice and others will flesh out other things or give another opinion.

i know i didn't get every reference and have my bias as well. luckily i am not the final judge of what is good and bad in the world. the idea is just to instigate more public discussion about these works because they usually just happen, get seen by a small group in Chicago and then forgotten.

thanks for the reply.


March 28, 2005 11:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"the idea is just to instigate more public discussion about these works"

I do not think this is what this site is accomplishing; it comes off as more of a platform for you to Assert your gripes and opinions.

March 28, 2005 12:49 PM  
Blogger Erik Fabian said...

i encourage you to start you own blog on the topic anonymous and let me know about it. i will link to you happily.

March 28, 2005 6:02 PM  

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