Theater archives

Good Things in Black Boxes


In Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play No Exit, hell was a drawing room in which two women and a man replayed their wrangles for eternity. With a fine irony, Katie Workum and Leigh Garrett have made their hell a place some consider paradise: Miami Beach. The door to WAX’s performing area, where the two women’s smart, funny Miami Project took place, is a formidable sliding-metal affair. As the two hosts-cum-recreation directors (Garrett and Steven Rishard) check us in at the threshold, we can well believe we’re going to be stuck here, too.

Garrett and Workum, who’ve been collaborating since 2000, make what’s tedious for the six inmates of this 1970s underworld entertaining for us. They’re assigned to plastic lounge chairs that must be aligned just so (Rishard checks them with a tape measure), and people must re-cross their legs in sync. Their punishment? Being summoned by a whistle to engage in exhausting races or forced to “swim” underwater (they step through holes in a blue plastic sheet and Rishard and Garrett lift it above them) until they can’t hold their breath any longer. Worse, they can’t escape the sunshine-and-senility pop tunes.

The piece hints at these people’s former relationships and lifestyles, which aren’t always clear. It’s Felicia Ballos who keeps reminding Nathan Phillips to adjust his position, but Terry Dean Bartlett who wants to touch him and is rebuffed. It’s Workum who tells Phillips, “I feel that the closeness of you and I is driving us apart.” There are some especially vivid passages: Ballos, lip-synching a song, is hoisted by the others through a variety of peculiar positions. Bartlett and Nicole Berger tangle in a duet in one corner; he’s cheerfully ardent, she’s unhappy and would rather join the others, or maybe just Will Rawls. Rawls seems doomed to play tennis forever (his companions watch the imaginary ball, which goes nowhere near where he’s aiming). He and Phillips, jogging in place, hold a conversation that consists of self-absorbed monologues. The piece works best when the performers’ extravagance is pointed and believable—as it always is with these two.

You can feel sorry for these hollow people thrashing through eternity in shiny, sleazy clothes, and sympathize when they rough up their keepers, who’ve been getting horny with each other. At the end, as in Sartre’s play, the door is opened. Berger ventures out, but she’s soon back. Hell is other people, and you kinda miss them.

Jody Oberfelder knows her stuff. She sets her precise, muscular, strongly designed athletic movements in excellently built structures that keep your eyes and mind engaged, and she provides surprises without rambling or digressing. Unlike her The Story Thus Far of last year, the two new pieces she showed at the Clark Studio Theater have no narrative. Moved is a suite of small, feisty dances to songs by the eccentric pop singer- composer Stephin Merritt, and Tangram offers clever variants of a Japanese game with geometric shapes.

In the sunny Moved, a quartet for Martin Davis, Jen Mendez, Rebekah Morin, and the choreographer, moods and emotional entanglements are suggested simply by the athletic interlocking and separating of bodies, the congealing and breaking apart of formations. In one duet, Davis clamps his legs around Morin while they’re both on the floor; she crawls out and then somehow rises holding him; he ends up aslant her thighs. Oberfelder—a small and sinewy gymnast type, who makes a headspin look perfectly appropriate to the song “(Crazy for You but) Not That Crazy”—treats the sexes equally. With slippery skill, Morin and Davis trade off being hauled around on an elastic harness to “Fido, Your Leash Is Too Long.” Moved is charmingly performed and only occasionally marred by archness.

Oberfelder finds many ways to play with Tangram‘s squares, triangles, and parallelograms. We see filmed hands arranging the pieces into what seems like a pattern a second. Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting projects three shapes onto the floor for Davis, Mendez, and Morin to dance in. Finished designs made with the pieces are projected, and also formed by the dancers. At the end, while John King’s music lazes a bit, the three bring in big white renditions of the shapes and move along the changing paths they build, their black clothes (by Katrin Schnabl) a nice contrast to the white cutouts. Then, they construct a picture on the floor. A running man? A boat?

Tangram could get didactic were it not for the dancing that winds through it—the lifts and orderly tangles, the clever acrobatics, and gentler gestures (like Mendez sitting to blow her fingers into feathers). Davis shines in a solo. And, yes, you see humanity in geometry.

Art Bridgman and Myrna Packer explode a duet act into a dialogue with others, some of whom are themselves. Isn’t technology grand? Their accomplishment seems even more magical in the intimate Joyce Soho. In excerpts from their 2000 Carried Away (score by Glen Velez), the couple dances part of the time behind a red silk hanging. In this arena, their shadows duel playfully, with a life-size Packer suddenly confronted by a gigantic Bridgman and vice versa.

The resonant Point A to Point B (You Can’t Get There From Here) pokes fun at the business of roadside directions-givers, with vivid video scenes of helpful people describing impossible routes and laying out streets with emphatic hands. At one point, their faces are projected onto Bridgman’s bare back, even his face, as if he were turning into a map of contradictory instructions. “I think we’re lost,” says Packer early on, as the two dance while rubbing live mics against their bodies (I’m not sure why). Gradually, the remarkable and engaging work becomes not just a clever satire but a metaphor for a couple’s life journey.

Their new Seductive Reasoning uses a variety of devices and sinuous movements to suggest the disguises and personal visions that shape a relationship. This is a suite of enticing little episodes, set to a wonderful composition by Robert Een for cello, voice, guitar, and percussion (Een and his cello in the flesh, the last two on tape). For instance, Packer dances in front of a pink screen, while a video camera and a projector manipulate her rosy image into a series of smaller and smaller Myrnas that finally circle around a glowing iris, as if to be sucked into a white hole. Then Bridgman dances with Packer’s life-size projected image and she with his, the two couples in perfect sync. He then stands in profile, merging and separating from a “self” that’s suddenly clad in a white skirt, then in other outfits (the image keeps diving into the real Art as if he’s a clothes closet). Finally, wearing a dark suit, he’s ready to join his partner (now in heels and a sexy dress) for more transformative games. At some point, five Robert Eens appear on an upended mattress. Wish he could play me to sleep.

Amid all the magic, it was nice, in Cups, to see Bridgman and Packer sit down to supper with their seventh-grade son, Davy Bridgman Packer, and make rhythmic family byplay with plastic cups, their hands, and the table.

SPECIAL TO THE WEB: Leigh Witchel is an amateur of ballet—that is, a lover and a devotee. He attends countless performances, he writes about ballet (excellently), and he also makes dances. His showing of three ballets at the Guggenheim was part of the museum’s illuminating Works & Process series. This particular program, which included a conversation between Witchel, New York City Ballet principal dancer Peter Boal, Witchel dancer Mary Carpenter, and dance critic and historian Nancy Reynolds, appealed to balletomanes (especially Boal fans) and educated potential ones.

Boal, as I said when writing of his recent program at the Joyce, can make just about any choreography look wonderful. In two solos, A Shropshire Lad (2000) and Midare (2001), Witchel has been sensitive to Boal’s gifts: his emotional range, his prowess, and his serenity. Both create the aura of memory and meditation that probably entered ballet with Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering. In the more compelling earlier dance, to George Butterworth’s settings of parts of A.E. Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad,” Boal wanders in, stares at the softly lit space, drops his jacket, and begins slow, pensive balances. As the words (“When I was one and twenty . . . “) suggest, Boal’s dancing becomes springier, more ebullient. Yet between virtuosic bursts, he continues to walk and contemplate.

He also wanders into Midare and stands briefly, watching Masayo Ishigure as she sits beneath the arch of Matthew Mohr’s handsome, irregularly pleated white fabric hanging, plucking Yatsuhashi Kengyo’s music from her koto. Here, too, Boal is grave, as if drawing the dancing out of the music and all it evokes. A slow rond de jambe becomes a tool for sharpening his awareness; a fast passage erupts from a slow balance like a striking idea.

The ambience of both these ballets—the first a reappraisal of exuberant youth, the second more quietly thoughtful—licenses the choreographer to make sudden changes, for instance the huge leap in Shropshire that comes out of calm walking like youth’s last gasp. But Witchel’s 1996 Word Become Flesh for four women (Carpenter, Sarah LaPorte Folger, Morgan Friedman, and Christina Paolucci) also gives the impression that he thinks less in terms of phrases than of steps. Certainly the steps flow together, but it’s hard to grasp a larger movement logic. It’s also hard to understand his drift in this work, and to relate the women to Mohr’s set piece, which looks like a clump of picket fencing twisted and burned black, or to the selections of early church music. The women—wearing soft slippers rather than pointe shoes—draw into circles, reach, pose. Each has an earnest solo moment. It’s clear that Witchel has an idea, but it doesn’t quite become flesh.