The title of Faye Driscoll’s latest work, There is so much mad in me, holds the mirror up to a nature many people would rather not think about. Driscoll has only been presenting her dance-theater works since 2005, and already she has a reputation for serious provocation. She makes spectators squirm, and there’s an uneasy edge to the laughter she elicits in exploring our dark, pent-up, raging urges.
I think back to the opening of her 2007 Wow Mom Wow at Dance New Amsterdam. Ten women crawled on stage and arranged themselves in a line, facing away from the audience. An interlocutor introduced each of them by name; faceless, they acknowledged us by little wiggles. By their butts, ye shall know them. In terms of courting extremes, There is so much mad in me goes beyond this and beyond Driscoll’s 837 Venice Blvd. That 2008 work presented three adults reinventing playground horrors and the plague-y adolescent search for identity in weird and wonderful ways. The new piece shows nine grownups unable to restrain their inner infants.
Driscoll is interested in the fine lines between pain and pleasure, cruelty and empathy, uncontrolled greed and religious rapture. Along with bringing these polarities and others dangerously close to one another, she explores the act of voyeurism, especially the sort that we practice every time we rubber-neck a freeway accident or tune in to reality TV. In one scene in There is so much mad in me, Adaku Utah expertly and scarily recreates the tantrummy rant that Tyra Banks aimed at a 2006 contestant on America’s Next Top Model in 2006 (1,162,048 YouTube hits to date). In another, Jacob Slominski, repeatedly screams at all the performers to “GET DOWN! GET THE FUCK DOWN!”—shining his flashlight around for signs of noncompliance, stamping scarily close to their prone bodies, and doing a clumsy, effortfully butch scrap of dancing. He even tries to get a semi-prepared spectator to lie down in one of Dance Theater Workshop’s aisles. These two scenes of rage, cruelty, and public humiliation differ mainly in the degree of danger involved.
Driscoll makes images morph into their opposites. Without evident transition, Utah turns into Oprah Winfrey announcing her great 2004 car giveaway, with the resulting over-the-top glee on the part of the all-winners audience. In one of the best scenes (and one of the few without spoken words), Michael Helland restrains Nikki Zialcita (two of the three brilliant performers in 837 Venice Blvd.) by holding both her hands as she tries to run forward. Squirming and giggling, she’s going nowhere, and since she persists for what seems like a very long time, her pleasure begins not just to look masochistic; it makes my own arms hurt. Jennie MaryTai Liu goes from hosting a let’s-talk-sex show (breast-baring by Lily Gold) to being a victim of confrontational revelations, while Jesse Zaritt solicits our applause and reactions.
Our discomfort level may vary, but Driscoll seems to want to probe it. The overture that Brandon Wolcott’s sound design provides is very interesting (quiet bird sounds, mumbling, bits of music), but it goes on long enough to make you wonder when the show is going to start. On occasion, Amanda K. Ringger’s richly—sometimes ironically—supportive lighting may blast our eyes with an all-white glare. Zaritt’s bout with Tony Orrico ends in tickling, but Zaritt and Helland wrestle so exhaustingly that we might be watching the YouTube compendium of famous Jerry Springer show fights, and the wince component fades into a distantly horrified complacency. Except for a sexy-me group number and an unusual, beguilingly awkward solo by Lindsay Clark (sometimes a shunned or heckled outsider), down-and-dirty, roll-on-the-floor fighting is the principal form of movement.
You can tell that a lot of thought and experiment has gone into There is so much mad in me—both by Driscoll and by her tremendously gifted performers—yet it unabashedly announces itself as a mess, the kind of turbulent stew that pop culture and far-right-wing tirades have sucked us into. As such it’s exciting and disturbing, even though some major issues are diminished by the grownup-playground atmosphere. When I think back on the edgy relationship between tortured, hooded detainees and TV talent-show contestants that Jane Comfort probed in her devastating 2008 narrative, An American Rendition, the quick glimpse that Driscoll provides of that juxtaposition trivializes it—just one more cruel, embarrassing day in our famous lives. As the last line in There is so much mad in me—spoken quietly in the dark—warns us, who knows what to believe anymore? And, one might add, what to care about.