Theater has always trafficked in illusion. The flesh-and-blood performers may be within touching distance, but reality has been leeched out of them. They are—and are not—“themselves.” Those aren’t shots of real bourbon the actor is knocking back. Fictions, as in life and politics, masquerade as truth.
In Truth, Revised Histories, Wishful Thinking, and Flat-Out Lies, John Jasperse and his four terrific performers offer a witty and provocative web of dancing, acts, and images that test in bewitchingly eccentric ways our ability to distinguish between truth and lies and between real acts and simulated ones. The choreographer as trickster.
The first half of the work is dark, full of fog and shadows, although the magical lighting by Jasperse and Joe Levasseur makes the black sequined shifts worn by Erin Cornell and Eleanor Hullihan glitter almost alarmingly (costumes by Jasperse and Deanna Berg MacLean). To one side is a little “room,” whose single rear wall and floor are wallpapered with a rose pattern. The same print is used on the bikinis that the women strip down to, so they can behave as if they’re on a beach (we can’t hear their muted chatter, but their buttocks quiver minutely to convey its rhythm. What’s wrong with this picture?).
In one of Jasperse’s cameo appearances, he attempts a single pirouette, each time over-explaining the reason he falls off-balance, even talking over the recorded voice of his patient teacher (Janet Panetta). Finally, he sort of masters this example of artifice and—unwilling to accept the fact that he’s a terrible turner—immediately decides he’s ready to attempt a double. Who’s he kidding? His magician act is equally lame, allowing us to grasp the desired illusion, even though we see where the balls appear from. (A genuine surprise comes later, when Neal Beasley ends a dance section by spitting out a ball we’d never have guessed he’s secreting.)
The piece layers the many variations of its theme. While Jasperse is pulling balls out of pockets, Hullihan and Kayvon Pourazar are immersed in a tango, to James Lo’s intriguing score (part recorded, part live, although we see no musicians at present). The tango’s elegant simulation of foreplay contrasts to what Pourazar then does with Cornell—a messier, more fumbly affair. The dancing throughout the piece is rich and juicy—its big, sweeping, slippery movements and canted spins sometimes veering almost out of control. But the performers’ apparent dizziness or laziness is as simulated as the invisible cigarettes they puff (just once) and the invisible drinks they not very convincingly sip. Jasperse even makes you wonder if the shifting flashes of unison dancing are carefully planned or accidental.
Inevitably, the piece skewers the fabricated sexy manners that are a crucial ingredient in show dancing. Tall, languorous Cornell and the shorter, spicier Hullihan—strutting in heels— are adept at conveying the style without overplaying it—as are Beasley with his whiplash body and Pourazar in his own softer way. “I want you to want me,” their prowling and hot stares proclaim. But, of course, they don’t. Not really.
One of the highlights of Truth is a mysterious sequence in which the two women, standing in place, execute in exacting synchrony a sequence of smooth balances on one leg or the other. All the time, Beasley and Pourazar, dressed from head to toe in black, with only part of their faces visible, crawl around and between them. They’re like the stagehands in Kabuki theater; we’re meant to pretend we don’t see them, even though we do. The men keep close, their moves echoing or accommodating to the shapes the women are creating, but no touching is involved. The effect is strangely erotic.
The post-intermission part of the piece is its “white act”: floor, back wall, costumes—all white. Now the four string players of the International Contemporary Ensemble are seated onstage (they’re wearing white clothes too). The centerpiece of this act is a fight between Cornell and Jasperse, which takes place on the floor, as if they’ve already knocked each other down. As in a slow-motion action sequence in a film, their every punch, jab, twist, push, and press happens smoothly and without apparent weight, although their silent howls and gritted teeth bespeak their rage and the illusory pain they’re inflicting and enduring. The climax to this highly artificed bout is a single real slap.
The visible and the invisible are queried in this half of Truth too. After the fight, dancers and musicians solemnly place large doilies over their heads for a while, like children who think that you can’t see them if they can’t see you.
The dancing that runs through both parts of this wonderful piece poses its own questions about reality and illusion. These performers are like us and not like us, like their own everyday selves and not. They’re also beautiful in the way their ease lies to us about the sweat and muscle work that attend it and the hours of rehearsal that brought it to life.
Confession: I never saw the movie of The Wiz, only the decades-ago Broadway musical. But as soon as Nicholas Leichter’s The Whiz: Obamaland starts, I sense that I’m in the minority and that everyone else sitting in the historic Henry Street Theater at the Abrons Arts Center has seen the movie (Diana Ross! Michael Jackson! Nipsey Russell!) at least 10 times as well as being a Nicholas Leichter groupie and a Monstah Black fan.
I often laugh when others laugh and applaud when they applaud, but sometimes they laugh with a knowing delight that leaves me behind. And it bothers me a little that in conceiving this take on The Wizard of Oz, choreographer Leichter and his co-director and composer Black seem to have presumed on that knowledge. They’re not, like Doug Elkins and David Parker—with their clever re-imaginings of, respectively, The Sound of Music and Annie Get Your Gun— trying to anchor the dancing to the actual plot or the numbers in it.
Instead, Leichter and Black’s 90-minute work riffs off the ambience, moods, and style of The Wiz (a musical notable back in the 1970s for reconfiguring L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz as an urban African American fable). Three of the songs in The Whiz are from the soundtrack of the 1978 film; some have been written or adapted by Black, and some are by other composers and artists. But as the show moves along, it drops little details for Wiz addicts to pick up. We all laugh when Black totters in on improbably constructed silver platform shoes (he’s a charming comedian as well as a wonderful singer), and the others join him in silver sneakers, but if you know that one evil witch was melted down to her silver footgear (did I Google that right?), you’ll laugh in a different way.
Color is a big deal in the kingdoms of Oz; its capital, The Emerald City, and satellite states form a rainbow coalition. Happy laughter greets Black’s remarking, as he rips off a green wig, that green is so over, and everyone had better go red. I can imagine that Stephanie Liapis, in her eloquent solo near the end (to Black’s adaptation of “Is this what feeling gets”), is channeling Dorothy in her loved-Oz-gotta-go moment. Except that the red shoes (sorry, ruby slippers) that then mysteriously appear on stage are donned by Leichter after his final solo to the song “Home.” Is he the one leaving the fantasy world? And is it Obamaland he’s glad to get back to? Or was he there all along? The only hint we get that our President is involved is part of his inaugural speech that, overwhelmed by music, functions as an overture.
The performers in this vivid, hyperactive revue, adrift in funk and jazz and club dancing, are wonderful, and the number of costume changes they have to make renders them practically heroic. Black’s many outrageous outfits seem to allude to several characters and/or landscapes at once (hairy epaulets = Lion?). He sings—with, without, and against his recorded score. So, occasionally, do Leichter and Aaron Draper, and in one of the piece’s rare quiet moments, Leichter plays Black’s lovely, gently resigned “Chasing Pavements” on a piano at the back, and the three of them sing the words.
The dancing is a blend of styles. In the opening number, Liapis, Lauren Basco, Keon Thoulouis, and Wendell Cooper cling together, lift one another, and swirl into evolving, groupings in a fluent postmodern-dance way. Duetting side by side, Leichter and Liapis begin what looks like the first ballet exercise that a dancer might do in class after leaving the barre. But they swing one leg up with a flexed foot and a rocking torso, and get hipper as they go. The first few group numbers hit the stage with panache. The dancers’ feet keep stepping, strutting skidding, hopping. Their hips and shoulders are mobile. Leichter’s choreography nicely blends crisp rhythms and sudden stops with a lazy, seductive ease. You think you could watch people doing this all night.
But after a few jolts of the heady stuff, I begin to wish for things that Leichter is forgoing. Almost all the group dances are executed in unison, with dancers neatly spaced out and facing front. A typical chorus-line formation. Leichter has skills beyond this. What’s the matter with dancers moving in counterpoint, facing different directions, and traveling more out of the spot they started in? The choreography could still have the in-your-face force of a routine. The costumes are imaginatively gaudy, Erik C. Bruce’s dazzling lighting makes colored beams spin around the stage floor and penetrate the audience, but long before the final and most imaginatively constructed group dance, I’m not as happy as I was initially about watching dancers I love, because they’re selling the same—or almost the same—number several times over.
Solo acts, often mysterious ones, provide variety. Draper, wearing floppy red trunks, prizefights the air; Cooper enters the theater through a side door (as Black often does) and marches onstage disguised in a very short, tight print outfit, heels, and a black cap, and dances with remarkable dug-in volatility. Dawn Robinson, looking great in a sexy black gown, her hair afro-ed dramatically, plays the diva, while Draper cools her with variously sized electric fans. Oddest of all, singer-performance artist Yozmit makes a single appearance, swathed in black and carried on an invisible helper’s shoulders. As he/she sings in a powerful voice (Yozmit has studied Korean pansori singing), the black cloth is whisked away, a white skirt falls from above and ends up around her/his ankles, and the final attire is a corset, tights, and a gold belt. I doubt that this is Glinda the Good, but you never know.