Theater archives

Turn Off the Set!


Is television expanding our horizons? Johannes Wieland thinks not. The message of his disturbing and seductive progressive coma is that the images replayed over and over in the media not only dumb us down, they numb our brains and render us unable to distinguish between reality and fiction. Instant replay, slow motion, fast forward, and rewind may be messing with the circuitry of our brains. I TiVo, you TiVo, they TiVo.

The German-born Wieland, a hot young choreographer on the scene, doesn’t bombard us with commercials, scenes from reality shows, or instances of product placement. Ray Roy’s dizzying projected video montage bombards us only by way of an overture. A retro TV monitor glows, but shows no pictures. Instead, Wieland abstracts, mingles, and layers TV images until they become bizarre distant relatives of what we may have encountered onscreen. Eric Jackson Bradley has the hushed complicit voice of a spokesperson for skin lotion, but he exerts less subtle control. Right at the beginning he purrs that now would be the perfect time to get in touch with our deep feelings; three seconds later, he calls out “OK, time’s up!” We do see poses that might have been drawn from television—Brea Cali putting on an earring, for example, Jon Guymon brandishing an aerosol can—but only in flashes, framed by James Clotfelter in rectangles of light and separated by rapid blackouts, while “My Funny Valentine” plays (the music is a well-chosen melange, ranging from Philip-Glass spirituality to “Take the A Train”).

The process of dressing and undressing becomes a metaphor for the stripping away of artifice, but creates its own kind of unreality. Bradley and Guymon take turns entering briefly to leer and writhe like strippers—each time wearing less or more. Isadora Wolfe strips to her bra and panties for an “audition” for a television show. When she gets a wrapped Christmas gift, it turns out to contain exactly the same kind of little black dress (costumes by Carol Bailey) that she has removed. In another take on the notion of replay, a double shooting, along with the music that accompanies it, is enacted, rewound, and reenacted again and again. Later Wolfe and Guymon embed the moment of impact into a dance sequence.

One of the most chilling scenes involves a melding of striptease with hospital shows. Lillian Stillwell stands in a stiff, pseudo-nonchalant pose. Cali and Bradley, gloved appropriately, take gleaming surgical tools clattering on tall silver trays on wheels and hand them as needed to Wolfe and Bradley. The “doctors” cut the garments off Stillwell, one by one, with the deliberate pacing of a strip number and hang them on hooks under the carts. Eroticism stripped of its tease.

Stillwell remains naked to assume a series of poses with Bradley (now also nude), a white fur stole, and an axe that has figured prominently, if enigmatically, from the beginning of the piece). After they lie down and sleep, they’re backed by projections of photos by Sebastian Lemm. In these, the camera strokes and caresses their enlaced forms in such extreme closeup that you often don’t know what body part you’re looking at. The artfully constructed pictorial reality seems less fake than the pair’s preceding live posing, but it, too, manipulates our vision and our responses.

Ice is featured as a symbolic prop. Lovers pass ice cubes between mouths, recycling the chill kiss. Toward the end, Kristin Osler (billed in the final, witty screened credits as “The Innocent”) is the center of a behind the-scenes fashion show meltdown in which garments are hurled onto her and snatched off with manic speed. By the time she finally collapses, Stillwell has entered with buckets of ice and flung the contents across the floor. Ostler, fashion-model gorgeous, lies, along with other motionless recumbent figures, on top of, and surrounded by ice. It hurts to watch them in this emotionally cryogenic state while Monica Gillette’s video selectively and at high speed rewinds progressive coma, ending with Bradley walking backward out of the building and into a cab that appears to travel in reverse.

At times, the piece seems to lag but always picks up again with yet another strikingly imaginative image. I haven’t mentioned “dance” yet; that may be because I’m still puzzled by how it functions in progressive coma, besides simply powering the ideas with intrepid physicality or demonstrating another form of repetition. I certainly wouldn’t want to do without the pleasure of watching Wolfe repeat intriguingly designed phrases of dancing—full-bodied, powerful, smooth as butter—or any of the other brief solos or slippery, do-it-again erotic tusslings. When these six vibrant people dance, we seem to be seeing “real” feelings and not those sanitized or shaped by what we see framed on that insidious electronic presence in our living rooms.