Theater archives

Jane Comfort and Lloyd Newson Tell It Straight (or Not)


Listening to evaluations about the current candidates for the highest office in the United States is downright alarming. So often the focus is on style—how forcefully they punch a point home, how confident they look and sound. Does he remind you of your favorite uncle? Is she just like you (only with designer eyeglasses)? Performance has become an important factor in determining who’s “presidential” and who’s not.

So it only seems odd at first that Jane Comfort, a choreographer who’s tackled political issues with passion and mordant wit, would decide to mingle an unflinching look at torture with parodies of reality shows like America’s Next Top Model and American Idol. The title of her new work, An American Rendition, itself packs an ironic punch: rendition as in “What are you going to sing for us tonight?” and rendition as in the undercover transporting of suspected terrorists to countries that condone torture.

Comfort’s message not so obliquely condemns citizens who can discuss TV contestants more knowledgeably than they can political issues. It’s interesting to note, too, that humiliation plays an important part in those shows, as it does in torture, although, of course, a dressing-down on your awful taste by Michael Kors doesn’t rank high on the embarrassment scale when compared to the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Those eliminated from Project Runway thank the judges and hug the winners. In An American Rendition, Leslie Cuyjet slides her bra and underpants out from under her clothes, hooks the bra on Sean Donovan, pulls the panties over his head, and smiles for her photo op. (Donovan plays an innocent American citizen who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and who happens to have dark hair and a beard.) The remote control can’t switch off scenes like this; they re-run endlessly in our heads.

Aided by her splendid colleagues Joan La Barbara (music), Steve Miller (visual design), David Ferry (lighting), Jung-eun Kim (video projection design), and Liz Prince (costumes), Comfort stitches her disparate materials together with almost faultless theatrical skill. (I did occasionally wish that she hadn’t felt it necessary to depict almost every known inhumane act; the waterboarding moment accompanied by the sounds of sloshing liquid seemed shoehorned in, and the sexy hooded chorus line was a bit much). The surreal bureaucratic maneuvering evokes the ordeals of Franz Kafka’s hero, K. The performers lined up to board an airplane are subject to the whims of a security guard (Olase Freeman), whose instructions get weirder and weirder; the clothes in the plastic bags the passengers carry then become their hastily assembled costumes for a fashion competition. The woman dressed as a housewife (Jessica Anthony) wins and then becomes the wife trying to fill out a missing person report on her husband, while officious officials build virtual mazes. By the time Lisa Niedermeyer and Ellen Smith reappear dressed in gray suits, they’re rebuffing Anthony in song and dance, chorusing an impossibly long phone number she can dial to get more information.

Talents shows erupt while combatants are wrestling on the floor. Donovan is dragged to a chair, tied up, and hooded, while in the foreground, Smith excoriates Peter Sciscioli for singing “I Feel Good,” made famous by James Brown; how dare he—he’s white! And, she adds scornfully, “Are you Presbyterian?” A mic is held to the writhing detainee’s mouth, and he sings a love song, bows, and is then carried back to the interrogation area. In this scenario, the detainee is repeatedly asked to identify a man in a photo. He’s never seen him before. Oh really? They were both at the same scientific conference. But over a thousand people attended that conference! That’s not the right answer. Hooded “dogs” snarl around him. Kim’s initial projections show the insides of bags passing through an airport scanner; when Donovan is being dragged violently around by the ankle, we see images of a shattered bone. While the shows go on, and his wife keeps confronting the officials who are withholding information, the assaults on this man’s dignity and the pain that’s inflicted on him gradually weaken his resolve, cripple his body, and reduce him to a kind of animal state (Donovan is outstanding at showing this).

In the end, the innocent prisoner is freed without explanation and hobbles away in suddenly red lighting, while Sciscioli, who has often played the interrogator, dozes in his chair, remote in hand.

The program quotes Dick Cheney’s speech on Meet the Press, September 16, 2001, about having to work “sort of on the dark side” to combat terrorism, ending with “And, uh, so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal basically, to achieve our objectives.” In An American Rendition, Comfort rips Cheney’s patchy blindfold, “sort of,” off our consciences, and tries to swing our gaze away from that beautiful dictator of American dreams, Heidi Klum.

Like Comfort, Lloyd Newson has for some time been tackling social and political issues with hammer, cleaver, and scalpel. The title of his most recent work for his British company, DV8 Physical Theatre, is a pun: To Be Straight With You. But there’s nothing funny about Newson’s exploration of anti-gay dogma and the viciousness it engenders. In a devastating bit of theatrical magic, Hannes Langolf, one of nine powerful performers, appears to rotate a transparent projected globe of the world. As he speaks of the 85 countries that criminalize homosexuality and the seven (Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and Nigeria) in which Sharia law may impose the death penalty, those sections of the virtual world turn red, and some an even darker red.

The dancer-actors speak words drawn from 85 interviews Newson and others conducted; most of the terrifying stories are those of men and women from immigrant cultures—some of them raised in Britain, others asylum-seekers who escaped to what they knew to be a tolerant country in terms of anti-discrimination laws. However, ultra-conservative British Christians (heard on tape) speak of homosexuality as a curable abomination, anti-gay violence crops up, and songs by such Jamaican reggae artists as Buju Banton, whose “Boom Bye Bye” advocate the killing and burning of gays. In some Islamic neighborhoods, religious customs supersede the laws of the land.

The stories emerge through the doors in Uri Omi’s set of wooden walls, and seep through its windows. Surfaces become blackboards on which a graffiti splurge of hate messages develops. While Dan Canham delivers one of those in-denial “I don’t think I’m gay” speeches, behind him, on a wheeled-in wall, Langolf rapidly draws sardonic arrows and symbols; when Canham convinces himself of his own virtuousness, he gets a chalk halo and wings. A live performer in a morphing projection of chalked rooms (by video artists Kit Monkman and Tom Wexler) puts out his hand, and a virtual door opens. Projected phrases penetrate a front scrim and appear in receding layers.

Fear, hatred, confusion, self-doubt, and occasional joy thread through the overlapping episodes. Many speakers try to reconcile religious belief with sexual preferences. An African woman (played by Coral Messam) saw her lover nearly killed (“a bottle in her ass”), but she’s a Christian, and she still prays. A convert to Islam (Seke Chimutengwende), one of whose ex-lovers was an imam, is certain that the Koran denounces only anal rape but avoids consensual anal intercourse just in case he’s wrong.

The “dancing” is profoundly organic. A well-behaved 15-year-old from Hull told his Muslim father and brother he was gay and was stabbed by them in an alley and left for dead. Ankur Bahl recounts this while jumping rope with amazing virtuosity—his rhythms responding to those of his memories and thoughts. A married Muslim (also Bahl) loves a married non-Muslim man and loves to dance—both forbidden; however, as long as he keeps this secret from the outside world (but maybe not from his wife), he thinks he’ll be fine. All the time he talks, he dances in the Bharata Natyam style, while his lover (Langolf) imitates him. Ermira Goro spins and spins around the stage while speaking as a 70-year-old rabbi who’s too tired to continue combating the destructive aspects of religion. Ira Mandela Siobhan notes his Catholic education while rippling his body fantastically to the fierce music emerging from the DJ booth on wheels; behind him, the DJ (Paradigmz) echoes his moves. When Rafael Pardillo convulses his torso, the act becomes an ordeal. After gays are likened to animals, the cast prances wearing horseheads and holding up letters of the alphabet to form a variety of ugly catchwords. All join in a rhythmic bonding dance while seated on chairs. The last image as Beky Stoddart’s lights dim is of Chimutengwende shaking his hands faster and faster overhead as he leaves his ultimate judging to the God he still believes in.

I applaud Peak Performances at Monclair State for sponsoring not only many notable premieres in dance, theater, and music, but for presenting groups who’re not currently booked for New York appearances. DV8 Physical Theatre, sad to say, hasn’t performed in the U.S. for 15 years.