Thursday, April 14, 2005

Goat Island “When will the September roses bloom? Last night was only a comedy.” @ PAC/edge Fest

Don’t panic.


This year’s PAC/edge festival entered its final weekend and the heavyweights were performing. After something like two years, many teaching gigs, the occasional work-in-progress performance and several public readings of their writing projects, Goat Island presents the U.S. premier performances of it new work, “When will the September roses bloom? Last night was only a comedy.”. It is presented in two versions, with some different material and structuring separating the two nights. All this creates something of an aura around the group as you might guess.


The two-hour performance of complex systems of movement, text, theater and multi-media was presented on the Main Stage of the Athenaeum Theater. The audience was seated on-stage in two opposing sets of bleachers. The brick back wall of the stage encloses one side of a rectangular performance space and the other side is a curtain-up, opening out to the auditorium’s seats. The performance space is rectangular-ish, Brechtian (think a more minimal “Dogville”-scape) white outline with a small “room” marked off on each end. There are several one-legged stools, as well as simple props set aside and a mic stand in the space at the start of the show.

The show opens with the group of five performers quickly marching in line into the space and then many things happen. Positions are taken up, one-legged stools are sat and rotated upon. The mic and mic-stand are ignored and performer Bryan Saner speaks directly to the audience. We are told that the beginning of the show is missing.

This is follow by monologues on perception, various movement sequences, props that are actually used to prop up body parts, cardboard cutouts, an absurd video sequence of the performers’ head floating in space, text readings/translations, joke telling and more movement. The end is also asserted to be missing, or rather casually left aside to be finished later, but in its place, the microphone is brought back out and finally employed. The show actually ends with a dance sequence by Lito Walkey in a flashy pair of shoes.

That is a ridiculously short summary of what happens during the show but it is a starting point for me to make a few comments. The show is structured in four parts really, with the two middle parts switching in the different versions. I actually saw version-two first and then version-one, and I am not sure how that changed my experience.

Frankly, I came away from viewing the first night (version-two) befuddled and full of part-thoughts. The group is damn tight, focused and precise and this level of professionalism is really a fundamental thing that set this group apart from most of the rest of the PAC/edge festival. The fact that they sustain this level of focus for a solid two hours is impressive, and, this is probably my naïve twenty-nine year old perspective, but it is nice to see a group of mostly middle-age people scurry around the stage with such vigor. But in the end it is not sufficient for me and the amount of work they have put into the show to just take the work on those fundamental merits. I kinda of expect that stuff and in a way found it a distraction as I tried to orient myself to the experience. The vocabulary of movements and theatrical effects they have developed is very deep and strange and found that the shock of the newness of it all was a big aesthetic preoccupation for me in the first viewing. I experienced a collage of multi-disciplinary parts but struggled to integrate them.

The second night (version-one for me) the show opened up a great deal. Knowing (mostly) what was going to happen allowed me the mental space to start to reconstruct the piece a bit. I realized on the first night that the one-legged stools and the repeated one-legged standing postures they would take on was the performers being planets and shifting perspective theme was important but on the second night I started to see a pretty straight forward political commentary, which I will get into in a moment.

My Point of View

I guess I describe my approach to the work to encourage a casual viewer to be patient with it because I think it is a difficult read. I feel like when you approach any work you make a choice about how much you will take the work on your terms or the terms asserted by the artist. It is a negotiation that is fundament to reaching an interpretation and eventually a kind of communion through art.

By proposing a work that the audience needs to see twice to “get” can seem pretentious, precious, or just too-much for an audience who may be used to getting in an out of a movie in an hour and a half. I want to suggest that it is relevant to the work, if not more enjoyable, to take the time to experience this whole two version work.

Some First Thoughts

Aesthetically, I think the double show creates several nice effects. It supports the thematic strand of multiple perspectives, which I think is bedrock to my understanding of the piece so far. The second viewing also neutralized the newness shock of the first viewing and so I was able to relax, hear the text, laugh more, and start to build the piece with them. I also think having the history of seeing the first piece in your mind is important specifically at that moment when they assert that they are missing the beginning of the show, for me memories of the last show filled the silence they hold on stage after making that assertion. I felt oriented, involved, and ready to take the ideas from the first viewing and begin to look into the variety of blind spots lingering for me from the first viewing.

I talked to Lin Hixson, GI’s Director, briefly and she said that one unexpected effect of presenting the show in a pair is that audiences are resolutely talking up positions on which is version is better. I don’t think you can avoid that kind of review no matter how you package the work and I am sure there are lots of folks who will be looking at the relationships between the shows as well. I am a version-one guy myself.

And I’ll tell you why I like version-one a bit better. It is hard for me to discern how much being the second night effected things for me, but one thing I felt was the clockwise/counter-clockwise bit worked better earlier on to frame the show. I should back up and say there are two didactic parts presented by Bryan Saner, one is a extended explanation of the difference in clockwise and counter-clockwise and how it changes depending on which way you look at it and the other is an explanation about how the eye works. Both bits involve bringing out a crude cardboard prop to use as an example during the talk. I felt like the clockwise/counter-clockwise bit was clearer and more integrated into the show. The prop is used, and then reused as a projection screen and has a home on stage though the show. The eye prop is clever but short lived and then abandoned on the floor in a way that seems unresolved and to clutter the stage. But that is just one perspective eh.

Some Thoughts on Character/Persona

Brian’s delivery is quiet amazing in how precisely he delivers his lines, including scripted mistakes, each night. The more you see his persona the more complex it becomes and the less trustworthy he seems. He seems to be the excuse-maker, the guy who talks some big dude out of kicking your ass, and eventually a magician, a torturer and spin artist.

Karen Christopher gives a charming persona performance with the quivering and grand voice of elder royalty. Matthew Goulish is often bended, twisted and muffled as the victim, as well as some kind of dog-man for a bit as well. Mark Jeffery would often pair with Matthew in a relationship where one would share/translate what the other was feeding him to say.

Brian and Matthew eventually became very important to me in seeing a political strand in the show. Matthew is tortured and reads accounts of torture, which on the first night flew past me, but on the second night, I started to see how and who was torturing him. While at times it was Mark’s persona in control, ultimately it seems like Bryan’s persona was the one in charge of the violence.
What I Figured Out and What I Didn’t

I knew GI started this project with the question - How do you repair?

That was in my head throughout the first show. During the second it became…how do you repair the world, how do you repair a tortured man, how do you repair a performance that is missing bits, etc.

These all seem rather kind hearted though and I have started to think the thing GI has found is that the flip side to repair can be the cover-up. How do you spin something? Most relevantly, how do you spin a system of torture and abuse?

At one point near the end of the show Matthew’s persona describes an extended torture scene, which includes an action that dislocates the victims arms. Matthew hold his arms straight out behind him and Bryan goes behind him, pulls two roses out from the sleeves of Matthew’s coat and eventually presents Matthew with these roses. A very violent magic trick that transitions into Bryan explaining away the show’s missing ending. The excuses for the show’s blind spots are a red herring. The torture is what is being spun.

Karen’s royalty persona also creates spin; she gives royal gifts in a way that seems to focus the stage on the mis-priority of “proper size beds”. Beyond that, I was not able to understand the threads coming from her actions. Perhaps not knowing anything about the source material, including Simone Weil’s philosophy, Paul Celan’s poetry, and the silent film “The Wind”, I am left out of some of the framework of the show.

A Few More Things and a Conclusion

There is a lot to think about with this show. I found it hard to talk about not only because of what I already have said but because the show constantly undercuts its resolutions. Jokes don’t quite work as jokes, few elements of the show seemed fully self-sufficient, or focused on for too long. When a James Taylor song is played it is played all the way through…and then another James Taylor song follows right along (is it the next song on the album?), this is not something I would expect. It is amusing but more than that…strange. (For some maybe, it is torture.)

There was also one other thing that I found quite lovely about the show that I wanted to mention. By leaving the curtains open to the empty audience seats their was the a large black void to that side of the stage. Whenever the stage lights went low, the little specks of light in the seats meant to illuminate the aisles would stand out creating constellations of stars. Exit signs beckoned us out into the void. This show was performed for me in an artificial outdoors that mirrored the projected video outer-space that their heads have a “head party” in, but was also probably the loveliest thing about the whole show for me.

The exit out of the spin is broader perspective.

The Actual Conclusion …GI and PAC

You can understand PAC/edge (PAC lends some support to the GI project) through the frame of GI somewhat. The devised theater bias in general at PAC/edge and GI methods of working in particular can be found throughout many of the festival’s performers, and the aesthetic of GI is perhaps the major guidepost to how this festival is currently curated. PAC/edge seems to want to find a way to tie together dance, theater, text, sound, video, etc., like GI does as a group but seems to struggle with the logistics of that in the Athenaeum Theater, finding a way to market it, and to intellectually package it all.

Probably because of their long creation process, GI’s influence comes more from its pedagogical impact than through the presentation of their work I think. Several members teach at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and every summer GI puts on a summer school (also through SAIC). The GI Summer School clues many young visual artists (as well as those theater and dance and etc artists in the know) in Chicago into how to collaborate, make theater, chop up text and movement, and develop their own long creative process. Members of Cupola Bobber and Weather Talking, the solo performer Kata Mejia, and several of the installation artists at the festival this year have all attended the Summer School. I have as well.

I wonder if PAC/edge festival could bridge the work they present with more of a mission to educated Chicago audiences while creating a yearly mind-meld for the artists.

There are several interesting threads of influence that I can see in the festival. Goat Island is a big one but there is also the thread coming out of Northwestern, (that overlaps with) a Clown performance thread, an improv dance thread, a material based performance thread, etc. These threads could start to be pulled out and examined through panels and scheduling in a way that shows not just who is working in Chicago but how they represent several significant threads of influences and then go from there. The work that doesn’t fit so easily would then stand out as counter-point.

Right now, I feel like it is the CREDIBILITY and AUTHORITY that comes with Goat Island is what is celebrated when PAC presents them. The fact that GI carries their aura and teaches at SAIC should be secondary to attempt to understand them anew as a group and in relation to what is going on in Chicago performance each year. Each performance presented could be looked at in that light.

Someone from outside Chicago could be brought in as a draw, but asked not to present work. Rather they could be asked to respond to the work in Chicago with an outsider’s eye. Using the lens of PAC once a year, performing artists could be offered special opportunities to take part in activities (that is not for the general public) and to understand Chicago as a performance community.

At least that is a way to spin it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

i saw Goat Island at the Battersea Arts Center in October 05 and i thought it was 1 of the most confusing performances ive ever seen. i totaly agree with what you have said and from reading what you have to say its put GI's work in a totaly different perspective for me. i was very unfortunate not to see the two perfrmances because of the overwelming popularity of the peice but i am looking forward to their next performance, when ever that may be.

June 04, 2005 11:43 AM  

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