Theater archives

Keely Garfield Flies Through Her Own Outer Space


Every time I see Keely Garfield’s choreography, I wish I could get inside her mind and rummage around for a while. I might not understand the work any better, but I’d relish all the bright bits of thought and experience being whirled in some kind of very quirky inner cyclotron. Now that she’s pulled her last year’s fascinating Limerence into position as the third part of a trilogy (“of sorts” says the program) after the new First Attempt and Eva Potranspiration/Cloud 9, I very much want to be smart and write insightfully about the evening, but I may not be up to it.

Garfield wants her audience closer. We’re already sitting at least a yard ahead of where the first row at the altar end of Saint Mark’s is usually set. Then, for First Attempt, Brandin Steffensen and Omagbitse Omagbemi cajole some spectators into sitting on the floor to partially surround a green plot of fake turf. This green runway is bordered by little white Christmas lights and flanked by the wooden crates in which the ingenious lighting designer Jonathan Belcher has set some of his instruments. At the far end of the “garden” reside a TV monitor, a lawn chair, a lost-and-found sign, a lamp-tree with many candy-colored shades, a toaster, fluorescent bulbs sticking out of a white bin, and a life-size plastic dog with a blue ball between its forepaws. Suburbia as seen from outer space?

The program entry for First Attempt lists a countdown. 10: “I need you so much closer.” 6: “I believe we have enough time.” I hope so, because when the piece actually starts, Garfield is curled in a fetal position, yelling, “Give me the good mic!” The images on the monitor (from a camera wielded by Steffensen) show us that she’s wearing a shaggy green jacket with a hood (let your outfit match your lawn?). She struggles to her high-heeled feet, hoists the toaster to her shoulder, and staggers into a song, David Bowie’s 1969 “Space Oddity” (“Ground control to Major Tom/take your protein pills and put your helmet on”). Bowie’s hero is depressed and so is she: “Planet earth is blue/and there’s nothing I can do,” she sings. I think she’s trying to save the world but may not have the strength or the strategies. The dog won’t come when she calls, and she has to crawl to it. She gets serious jitters and has to be restrained by Steffensen and Omagbemi and hauled back to the chair. She finds a garden gnome, but exactly what comfort is that? (“There’s no place like gnome,” she quips wearily, or was that “Nome”?) Several spectators (who’ve been primed) join her in running around like kids playing airplane, waving little pieces of white paper. If this is only her first attempt at being a hero, maybe she’ll succeed next time.

What she’s trying to save in Eva Potranspiration/Cloud 9 may be a family. And the trilogy could be a triptych, with Eva as its central panel. The lawn and the other objects have been removed, and nine shiny, slanted panels, like solar collectors, frame an area on the floor. There’s a desk chair and an ironing board. Garfield enters carrying a child (her own daughter, Vivian Ra) and lays her down, stretched out like a potential sacrifice, on a fur jacket; the fur matches the trim on Garfield’s print dress. Steffensen enters from the vestibule of the church, which is flooded with smoke. Singer-songwriter Matthew Brookshire acts as a sort of non-interfering mediator in this domestic maelstrom. These are two of the numbers he delivers: “Returning to Earth/Keely’s Space Ship” and “I Can See Russia From Alaska When I Look Into Your Eyes.”

A curious object—it looks like a fat, four-foot-tall croquet wicket—becomes a potential weapon, but also something these people hold close when they want to sleep. Once when Garfield and Steffensen are about to kiss, they drop the object—which they’re wrangling over—and the noise awakens Ra. They freeze and jam their thumbs into their mouths. You get the picture: the sometimes-infantile grownups; the perils of parenthood; the bottled-up anger and guilt. A “Go to bed!” command is a cheap band-aid on a still bleeding cut. You also see love and the need, but when Steffensen wails, “Jesus!” it’s no casual expletive. Who will save this family? In the disturbing ending, Ra drops her pink bunny, spreads her arms wide, and Steffensen hoists her up in a crucifixion pose. Garfield knocks over the ironing board and cradles the bunny. It sings to her in a tinny voice, “Yes, Jesus loves me.”

Limerence looks somewhat different in the church from the way it appeared last March in the small high-ceilinged former chapel re-christened as the West End Theater. Instead of only a rear wall to flatten themselves against, Garfield and Omagbemi can clamber up the carpeted risers at the entry end of the church and slide down its pillars. In this larger space, the two bathtub-sized “soft lamps” that Belcher and Steffensen turn back and forth during the first duet make the dark areas darker and the moments when the beams hit us in the face more painful.

And the quartet also changes when seen in relationship to the previous two pieces. In an interview with Gia Kourlas that appeared in Time Out/New York, Garfield spoke of Limerence as a quest for union that runs through her personal and artistic life, and you can see that in a number of offbeat ways. Belcher isn’t just the designer; he’s present as a performer—adjusting the lamps and the music selections. Garfield attempts to bond with the powerful, beautiful Omagbemi (now clad in a glittering bodysuit); the latter, subject to bouts of coughing, rejects all assistance. Yet the most powerful passage of dancing all evening is the two women’s velvety, rhythmic crawl across the floor side-by-side, like two companionable lionesses out hunting. Steffensen enters as a would-be strongman, pedaling an exercise bike at demonic speed and donning small boxing gloves to counter Garfield’s futile little slaps; she crouches down and peers at him through a bike wheel when he shows off with a handstand.

With all that’s going on, and all the enigmas that swim in, around, and beneath the activities, the costumes changes, and the dramatic stances, I forget to notice the intermittent skilled and expressive dancing that reminds us of its importance in Garfield’s creative life. This woman’s performing persona could break your heart. Waifish but also tough, confronting events with puzzled or wondering eyes and half-open mouth, she soldiers on bravely. In the final moments of Limerence, she’s standing behind Steffensen on the bike, looking like a victory statue, while he pedals away. Facing the future while actually going nowhere. The entire evening is so entertainingly, alarmingly, poetically, beguilingly personal that I want to yell, “Good luck, Keely! And keep an eye out for traffic jams!”