Theater archives

One Act at a Time


You can easily see your daily life as a vaudeville. A serious aria is followed by a Mutt-and-Jeff comedy duo, a dance on the slack wire, a trained-dog act, a magician. And lots can go wrong: a missing prop, a forgotten line, a piece of falling scenery. Susan Marshall’s Cloudless captures this structure with its inherent contrasts. Some of its 18 “acts” are meaty and complex; others breeze by. Some are deeply disturbing, others lighthearted. The accompanying music varies from a tune by WE to a Bizet song recorded by David Byrne.

The fact that the cast numbers only five—all superb performers—provides a tender continuity, like that of a family circus. It’s possible to discern themes, such as the willfulness of objects, confinement, or enforced order. Tipped chairs and wheeled platforms are pulled along on ropes. A puffy net cloud ascends. The dancers help the stagehands move a table, chairs, a ladder, a fan, and various screens for Roger Hanna’s projections. Luke Miller has to keep shoving fallen people back into the wings so he can get on with a thoughtful solo, while sounds of banging and clattering (planned, not accidental) occasionally issue from backstage. In an indescribably haunting dance to Philip Glass’s soft Etude no. 2, Mark Stanley’s lighting subtly cages Petra van Noort as she undulates, circling her fluttering hands around each other, shifting her gaze from floor to roof.

Jacob’s Pillow contributed support to the five sections of Cloudless
shown there this past summer. The commissioners of the finished piece are DTW, where it opens next Wednesday, and Montclair State University’s Office of Arts and Cultural Programming, where the company had the luxury of rehearsing for three weeks in MSU’s spacious but intimate Alexander Kasser Theater (I saw the work there February 22). Marshall intimated after the first performance that certain moments had been rocky, but whatever they were they didn’t detract from the marvels she and the dancers created.

Marshall, who celebrates her company’s 20th anniversary season this year, has always combined heightened everyday movement with repetition to create profound and painful visions of tenderness. In one heartbreaking duet, Kristen Hollinsworth emits a high sound—half scream, half gasp—and Joseph Poulson instantly stops it with his hand. However much she twists and turns and bends in his embrace, he struggles to silence that cry. At one point, exhausted, he releases her, and she hesitantly puts her own hand over her mouth. But she can’t keep it up; they return to the struggle, only now there are other cries to be stopped—his. Sometimes he uses a kiss to muffle their voices. It will never end; the lights just go out.

In another alarming scene, Hollinsworth, suspended in a harness, walks at a slant down a stepladder, apparently wishing to swing out and escape. Each time, Poulson and Darrin M. Wright capture her and walk her backward up the rungs, after which the two men cluster around van Noort (now wearing Kasia Walicka Maimone’s gray cloud of a tutu)—nursing, grooming, measuring her.

The episode called “Cup” brings to mind a surreal office scene in Marshall’s 2003 Other Stories. She can not only render the everyday transcendent, but can delicately tweak it into absurdity. Hollinsworth, lying beside the chair on which Miller sits, takes a tissue from under her shirt, unfolds it, puts it over her face, and blows it into the air. Then takes another. Miller, staring coolly straight ahead, reaches a hand to the side and catches each tissue, using them to wipe a saucer and then a cup, after which he folds and pockets them. After each task, Hollinsworth rolls over rather voluptuously to survey the progress of making tea. I won’t give away the rest of this entrancingly absurd scene. You’re going to see Cloudless, right?

Some episodes are very brief (three performers stand around while two toss “snow” into the air above a recumbent electric fan). Others are more like transitions. Watching Marshall’s choreography, from the 1984 duet Arms and her 1987 Interior With Seven Figures onward, I’ve been profoundly moved by the emotional resonance she coaxes from the simplest movements and patterns. She makes the lift of an arm speak in several languages at once, and you somehow grasp them all. As in Cloudless‘s stunning “Book,” she tells us that you both can and can’t stop life’s pages from turning, and that every action holds its secrets close.