Walter Dundervill and Jody Oberfelder Probe the Past

A little over a week ago, I wrote about the thrills and perils of deconstruction and the popular dance of fragmentation. Now comes Walter Dundervill with Dear Emissary, in which time travel becomes the vehicle for picking apart and layering enigmatic events. In an interview with Gia Kourlas that appeared in Time Out New York, Dundervill (a gifted performer and multi-talented theater artist) revealed that the cast of this new piece of his plays members of a 1970s troupe, who are in turn looking back at the late 1920s. Key films made in the ’20s (such as G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box)—or with subject matter from that decade—figured as source material (along with a lot of other stuff).

Whew! I don’t know whether the spectators who trekked out to the Chocolate Factory knew all that. Dundervill evidently felt they didn’t need to; he didn’t put the information in the program. This is an evening rife with mystery and laden with questions; luckily it’s also full of striking theatrical effects. If you arrive before 8 p.m., or even some minutes afterward, you descend the short flight of steps to the Chocolate Factory’s shabby, low-ceilinged basement to confront a series of tableaux vivants. Arranged at one end of the long, narrow space are racks of costumes and an arrangement of low platforms and chairs on which are posed seven members of the cast wearing 1920s attire. From time to time they change positions, as if an invisible photographer were doing publicity shots.

We sit on chairs (not enough for everyone) at the side or wander around staring. Which is how we discover what they could be gazing at beside a non-existent lens. Opposite them, in a recess the size of an elevator, two figures wrap around each other in every way they can. In this slow struggle, they could be mating or wrestling or striving to find warmth and comfort in a space smaller than the one they actually inhabit. It’s hard to tell because they’re wearing bulky, rough-cut suits of unbleached muslin, and their heads are covered by mesh bags, tied on at the neck with long, black ribbons.

Walter Dundervill’s "Dear Emissary"
Frank Mullaney
Walter Dundervill’s "Dear Emissary"
"Rock Me Mama" by Jody Oberfelder
Julie Lemberger
"Rock Me Mama" by Jody Oberfelder

Details

Walter Dundervill
The Chocolate Factory
March 10 through 13

Jody Oberfelder Dance Projects
Abrons Arts Center
March 11 through 13

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When they stand up and emerge, it’s to entertain us with slow, repetitive stepping patterns. The others have left and gone up to the main performing area, and the intermittent thuds we hear are made by the costumes that they’re throwing down through a shaft into the recess.

We trudge up and take our seats along one long side of the theater. In the ribbon of space in front of us, several women in vintage high-heels and short, wraparound muslin dresses are lying or standing with paper drums (or hatboxes) on their heads. Things begin to sort themselves out. The women turn out to be Patricia Beaman, Biba Bell, Megan Byrne, and Jennifer Kjos. They’re most active as a kind of chorus, swaying dreamily, framing the rest of the action, and making fierce forays up and down the room, strutting and kicking their legs high with every step. Once, as they go, they sing, “Yes and lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, lover come back to me,” along with Leonard Cohen (the sound score put together by Justin Luchter also contains songs by the Rolling Stones and Lioness). Ben Boatright, Janet Dunson, and Kevin Lovelady are costumed in more or less regular attire, and it is they who gather around a small table to talk, or stand in a series of locations indicated by sketchy scenes painted on cardboard that Dundervill and Benjamin Asriel periodically rush in and hold up behind them.

These two, the former denizens of the recess, function as stage managers, arranging thin door-sized slabs along the wall so that their white sides show, later reversing them to reveal their brown backs. Carrie Woods’s lighting sometimes turns the whole space blue or red or as multicolored as a disco.

In the repeating, shifting conversations, the performers use their real names, and once, a deep, gradually slowing voice gives stage directions. Boatright, Dunson, and Lovelady deliver their lines with a certain mechanical precision, which occasionally gives way to high emotion. The dialogue is succinct: “I’m leaving.” “Why? Because he doesn’t love you?” There’s a scene in a hospital; Boatright (sometimes Lovelady) lies on the floor and the other two hover. Each time the conversation is repeated, its meaning shifts. Sometimes the visitors hope the patient will die. Sometimes they appear grief-stricken. Sometimes they tell him to get up. “He’s gone” can have two meanings.

The four high-stepping women take off their white tunics to reveal silver ones. Over black tights, Asriel and Dundervill don coats made of the basic unbleached cotton; intriguingly cut, these suggest early modernist constructions (Dundervill designed the costumes and scenic elements). These two and Kjos step out in some of the evening’s most exhilarating dancing, expanding all the steps we’ve seen, covering space as they kick and turn, leaping. They soothe the hapless Boatright (who’s never answered the question he’s been asked several times about when he’ll get back to writing poetry) and dress him in new attire. The women reappear—a time-traveling, bleached-out costume parade. Beaman has the bulky panniers of an 18th-century woman, Bell’s gray wig suggests Marie Antoinette, while Byrne and Dunson wear post-Revolution garb. One at a time, all the performers except Asriel and Dundervill lie down on the white panels that have now been laid on the floor. The two men pace amid the entombed past.

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