The inside of Tami Stronach’s head must be an interesting place to visit. Ideas, images, styles must be constantly waltzing around, changing partners, flying apart, and re-cementing themselves oddly. An entrancing work like her Contain yourself, darling is so bizarre that you don’t even bother to wonder what everything means. Seen last year at WAX, it opens Stronach’s Danspace program with fewer of Kelly Hanson’s painted-sky panels but just as many feathers. We can see that potentially crazed movements like those Kate Weare executes by lying on the floor and screwing herself around by lifting her hips look almost docile when Weare and Monica Bill Barnes perform them in perfect unison. We can also apply ideas about containment and its opposite to the image of Lindsay Dietz Marchant, well into the piece, appearing out of a claw-footed bathtub and, much later, shaking a great accumulation of feathers out of her raincoat and squatting over them.
When I first saw Contain yourself, I didn’t try to make a connection between Marchant and the others; it sufficed that they had bits of feather on their costumes. But in Stronach’s new The Maid and the Marmalade, two potent elements are so apparently disparate that I yearn for just a few more hints as to why they belong together. The press release mentions “themes of love, power, and family” and the differing viewpoints of men and women.
Connecting the strands is particularly problematic because one is a terse text written by Jason Lindner and one is tempestuous dancing (both supported and punctuated by Karinne Keithley’s skillful collaged sound design). It’s almost too easy to infer a time-honored trope: The dancing women represent the sub-surface feelings the speakers dare not show. The play is like a British drawing-room comedy, slightly Mametized and running amok. Up on the altar sit a desk, a stool, and a hatrack. Here, every day, an Editor (Richard Crawford) comes to work, aided by a Maid (Adrienne Kapstein). Their exchanges consist of single words—perfectly timed and shaded by these two expert actors—and succinct, appropriate actions. “Hat,” he says, removing it. “Hat,” she echoes, taking it. “Hat,” he affirms once it’s on the rack. Their days progress as a low-keyed staccato dance of actions confirmed by words. Every morning an envelope drops from overhead, she retrieves it, he writes something, folds a piece of paper, puts it in an envelope, and holds the envelope out. She licks it. Their routine winds backward; hat on head, briefcase in hand, he leaves. She curls up on the desk and sleeps.
However, the whole time this hum-drum scene is establishing itself as a routine, three women in floaty dresses (Isadora Wolfe, Marchant, and Stronach) are standing in the niches behind the altar, occasionally changing position. And The Maid has begun with a dance of whirling falls by Marchant. On the third “day,” no letter comes. Instead a wild-haired woman in red (Jessica Green) arrives (along with red light courtesy of James Japhy Weideman), plunks down a red letter, and hurls herself around on the floor. As the Maid furtively opens the letter, a storm of mail falls from above.
From here on, the relationship between the Editor and the Maid begins to alter—rather for the better—perplexing them both. After she hands him his spectacles as usual, she adds, “I like your spectacles.” Pause. The routine lurches forward, although the boss does read the red missive (a cryptic love note) to his helpmeet. A new element is introduced. A hatted pair (Weare and Adrian Clark), facing away from us, arch and bend, making the faces of a man and a woman painted on their bare backs elongate and contract, as if to suggest the astonishment and worry that lie beneath the behavior of the pair in the office.
The women dancers appear more often, occasionally with Clark. They tango on the floor. They do it standing. Deconstructed and embellished ballroom dancing erodes into wrangling. The episodes up on the platform (frozen during the movement passages) continue to evolve in another direction, with the maid’s suppressed passion for her employer uncertainly surfacing more and more and he unwinding slightly (once he arrives with his clothes in disarray). Now she ventures “bowler” instead of just “hat.” They actually, minimally, converse.
There is no wrap-up. “Damn,” says the Editor, and paces, pipe in hand.
Having written about Stronach’s fascinating piece, I begin to see more correspondences between the dancing that emerges from the shadows at the back and the subtle crumbling of repressed transactions between a comfortably domineering man wedded to his job and an adoringly subservient woman. Enigmas and loose ends, however, still flap around in my head.