Maybe it was a lengthy sojourn in her native California that prompted Faye Driscoll to re-examine her childhood and the environment in which she grew up, and then create 837 Venice Blvd. Although an announcement for the piece billed it as “a rigorous physical exploration into the question of identity,” several sagely employed theatrical devices distance the performers from memory-lane, psychiatrist’s-couch revelations. 837 emerges as a wild, ferocious, wrenching, and hilarious piece of dance theater, enacted by three collaborating artists who are all these things—sometimes simultaneously.
In terms of the work’s structure and ambiance, Venice Beach, California, surely played a role—not its sea view but its population of free spirits, artists, street performers, beach body-builders, surfers, fortune tellers, nut cases, and…well, ordinary citizens. Established by a single entrepreneur as a combination of Coney Island and Venice, Italy, its grandest days as a resort are over. Driscoll takes her tone in part from its rag-tag theatricality. Two wooden supports as fat as telephone poles hold a red velvet curtain that allows for some shenanigans (heads poking out, fabric lashing from conflicts behind it). The first image is of Celia Rowison-Hall singing a breathless, increasingly surreal song based on Will Oldham’s “I Am a Cinematographer,” while alternating between hand-cranking an invisible camera and shaking her head furiously. Home movies, anyone?
Ideas borrowed from puppetry serve to skew Driscoll’s and the performers’ recollections and identity markers. In the beginning, Nikki Zialcita, hidden behind Michael Helland, pushes him forward, moves his arms, and speaks in a phony simulacrum of Helland’s voice to create a swishy caricature of him. He cooperates in the illusion, although he remains embarrassedly aloof when her forearm, thrust at us between his legs, becomes a hungry talking penis. Then Helland gets behind Zialcita to present her as super-butch, sneering, and foul-mouthed. The 60-minute piece ends with a long disintegrating sequence in which the two of them carry Rowison-Hall through an extended ballet “solo.” It’s both funny and excruciating. Rowison-Hall is slender and long-limbed, and this is an aspiring dancer’s fantasy-nightmare. Her friends gamely hoist her and twist her, lift her legs high, make her soar. She feels (and is) beautiful. Most of the time. But this is exhausting for all three. At one point, they shove her up one of the two additional poles, and park her there, clinging like a monkey, while they take a panting time-out. Eventually, the positions they maul her into are blurred beyond recognition, and you ache for all three performers.
Earlier, they frolic and squeal like kids running amok; they play favorites with a sandwich; they get scared and clutch one another; they dance together. But suddenly, as Helland and Rowison-Hall note, Zialcita starts “getting a little weird.” In the remarkable and virtuosic solo that ensues, she moves and grunts as if several forces were battling for her body and soul. The one that’s usually winning is the muscle-pumping, hunched-over, spoiling-for-a-fight dude; the others suggest a sexy female and the playful neighborhood pal.
In the most arresting and disturbing sequence, the three perform in unison what might be a dance-school recital number wearing gold and red capes. Out of nowhere, Rowison-Hall calls a halt—no, howls at them to stop; they’re screwing up the routine. She then launches into a hair-raising monologue, morphing from what might be an angry chum to a disappointed teacher or ranting parent into a hatred-spewing, homophobic, racist bigot. I believe that the words she shouts to tear them down may represent Helland’s and Zialcita’s own worst imaginings as to what others might think of them, because, while the two stand mute and humble, she denigrates Helland for his homosexuality and Zialcita for her Philippine background. What she snarls at them for what seems a very long time is so shockingly over the top and eventually so absurd that you laugh even as you cringe. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Rowison-Hall’s performance is how she begins to crumple—her voice breaking, her eyes filling—so that this time when she says, “You might as well die,” she’s talking about herself, and the others take her hands and make them stroke her into calmness.
What I’ve written doesn’t convey the subtleties and the transitions that the script and the wonderful performers explore. 837 Venice Blvd, directed as well as choreographed by Driscoll, is full of surprises. So is Sara C. Walsh’s set. Several times, performers retreat into, or make a break for, the spaces offstage behind the black side curtains, giving us fleeting glimpses of “the real world” outside this circus: a tiny patio on one side, where Rowlson-Hall and Helland retreat to drink lemonade during Zialcita’s identity crisis; on the other, a living room couch and lit-up table lamp; also, a kitchen with white cabinets, into which Rowlson-Hall rushes in an effort to shake her “handlers.”
The Here Art Center’s announcement for Driscoll’s show also mentioned “how exhausting it is to keep being somebody all the time.” That’s certainly a subject this crazily brave and devastating work plunges into. To the hilt.