San Francisco choreographer Joe Goode decided long ago that he wanted to tell stories, and that speaking and singing would be necessary for the kinds of stories he wanted to tell. No movement for its own sake, no miming could convey the social issues that mattered to him and the personal issues that he, as a gay man, had had to face.

This doesn’t mean that all his dance theater works are sober; some flip their messages into the mix lightly. Goode opens an abridged version of his 1996 Maverick Strain, standing in one of the Joyce’s unused boxes, wearing a Stetson and wailing a cowboy song of his own devising. But this buckaroo is singing to a lover to “stay put, stay here with me” and “whyd’ya hafta keep on hatin’ and killin’?” Maverick Strain is a deconstruction of Arthur Miller’s screenplay for The Misfits, the 1961 movie starring Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, and Montgomery Clift. The rest of Goode’s cast comes whooping down the aisles, firing guns and indulging in rhythmic vocal play that alludes to vulnerability and seduction (perhaps also alluding to, but hardly invoking, Monroe).

Throughout the piece, Goode rings changes on toughness and fragility. Jessica Swanson, dressed as a dancehall girl in one of Wendy Sparks’s modified Wild West costumes, is rougher-tongued than any cowhand (Thelma Ritter tarted up?) when doling out advice to the demure newcomer (Patricia West). Two guys (Goode and Alexander Zendzian) arrive and pull up chairs to banter; after a while, the men and women exchange roles and repeat their cliché movie-westerns dialogue. Now it’s the men who fake-swoon in their chairs and the women who sprawl and leer. Provoked to the breaking point, Andrew Ward pulls a gun and fires, but then collapses, wailing “Pa, I shot a man!” Beth Custer’s music is tailored to every mood change, stopping and starting in order to punctuate gestures and underscore dramatic points.

The Stephen Petronio Company's I Drink the Air Before Me
Steven Schreiber
The Stephen Petronio Company's I Drink the Air Before Me
The Joe Goode Performance Group in Wonderboy.
Austin Forbord
The Joe Goode Performance Group in Wonderboy.

Details

Stephen Petronio Company
Joyce Theater
April 28 through May 3

Joe Goode Performance Group
Joyce Theater
April 23 through 26

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The choreography focuses on couples. Sometimes brawls turn into same-sex love dances, but whatever the gender-play, someone is sure to be upended, legs split apart over a partner’s shoulder. Goode’s interest in—and reliance on—this move is curious. Either it’s just comfortable, an old shoe that he doesn’t want to toss out, or it has some personal significance to him.

The hero of Goode’s 2008 Wonderboy is a sensitive adolescent—so timorous, so overwhelmed by beauty, so fearful of his own desires that he’s afraid to venture out. He’s extremely eloquent (Goode’s own text is laced with words by Sam Shepard, Thom Gunn, Christopher Isherwood, and Krishnamurti). “I’m just sticks and paper. . .a fabrication,” he sings toward the end. But he’s much more than that. He’s a puppet, maybe three feet tall, designed by the master puppeteer, Basil Twist. Boyish, eager, his head thrust a little forward, he’s always manipulated by at least two live performers. When we first see him, he’s sitting on a windowsill between two blowing curtains, and Swanson and Ward, standing behind him and moving his limbs, might be his parents. His voice is Felipe Barrueto-Cabella, who stays to one side of the stage behind a mike and speaks in a high, childlike voice.

But almost all the performers get a chance to speak for him, even as they depict the life outside his window, squabbling, melting into couple dances that turn erotic. The story is sentimental, more than a little clichéd. The hero is a maverick in a different sense from the conflicted cowboys of Maverick Strain. He stands for all the youths who feel “different,” who’re born to be artists, who have “forbidden” cravings, and who eventually find the confidence to come out of their shells and /or out of the closet, and venture beyond their safe, lonely, window-sill views of the world.

He falls in love with another youth (Ward), and at the same time also witnesses the perils that may face a gay man. Zendzian, costumed along with the company’s two women as a cheer leader, portrays the victim of a date rape—“her” own hands groping her and tearing off clothes. The cast chants all the possible hate-slang for homosexuals, and Swanson screams invectives at an invisible someone offstage.

The most arresting and powerful part of Wonderboy comes when the puppet leaves his window. Everyone else congregates to enable him. How brave he seems, jumping from one bent back to another, one shoulder to another—still quite scared of human contact. They boost his ego: “You’re great!” “You’re sensitive!” They tickle him and he likes it. The performers create a striking dance as they collaborate in making the hero mobile and empowered. In the end, white curtains, like those attached to the now vanished window-on-wheels, frame the entire back of the stage. The world is his, and he’s carried on sticks—flying—up the aisle and out into it.

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