Sample Work: Theatre Journal 66:3
"Out There 2014: New World Visions"
Theatre Journal, Volume 66, Number 3, October 2014, pp. 454-458 (Review)
The Walker Art Center’s month-long Out There series has been bringing international, avant-garde performance to Minneapolis for the past twenty- six years. Along with institutions like the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus and REDCAT in Los Angeles, the Walker belongs to an American touring route for internationally acclaimed experimental performance groups. As Shannon Jackson argues in Social Works, these institutions—and in particular for this review, this series—are part of a global performance circuit that privileges the nonlocal, unwittingly (or not) participating in a neoliberal politics that values the flexible, the moveable, and the “new”; in this case, the transferable performance, the nomadic performer (or, to use Jackson’s term, “the migrant cultural worker”), and provocative performances from elsewhere. While the resolutely post-dramatic aesthetic of the work in this series forced the audience member to critically reflect on both self and performance as socially, politically, and, thanks to director Kuro Tanino, psychologically constructed, the series itself remained unexamined within the work presented. United under the title “New World Visions,” this series did, however, offer a way to think through the values and risks of the “new world” circuit of globalized performance.
The Walker Art Center commissioned Wunderbaum and LAPD’s Hospital, the first work of the festival. Wunderbaum, from Rotterdam, and LAPD, from Los Angeles, are companies dedicated to performance that engages with community. LAPD, founded in 1985 by John Malpede, works with the homeless on skid row to create grassroots, community-based theatre; Wunderbaum collaboratively creates theatrical performances that are site- and community-specific. What, then, becomes of work, grounded in the local, when it is presented to an audience that has not been intimately part of the collaborative process?
Hospital depended on an expanded notion of community, identified through an issue common to every citizen: healthcare. The performance was, in one way, a direct-address lecture to the audience on the history of American healthcare (interspersed with occasional critiques of the Dutch system). The lectures, however, occurred through the frame of Malpede’s own healthcare narrative, beginning with his birth in an ER-inspired hospital scene (complete with performers wielding handheld cameras to project images of televised chaos on the large screen at the back of the stage), and ending with his imagined death in 2033.
The self-performances of Malpede and Henriëtte Brouwers, his wife (her presence was clearly in relation to him), iterated that this story was indeed a lived healthcare reality. The other performers from Wunderbaum and LAPD, breaking in and out of the roles of Malpede’s friends, family, doctors, and assorted healthcare bureaucrats, enacted and narrated events, occasionally retreating to tables piled with the tools of the bureaucratic trade (telephones, papers, computers), which surrounded the performance space (overwhelming the lone symbol onstage of actual care: the hospital bed). Whittled down to a retelling of Malpede’s particular health insurance woes, the narrative lost sight of a larger societal critique in the very sea of bureaucratic minutiae that so defeated Malpede. After a countdown to his Medicare eligibility at age 65 and an intentionally premature celebration of Obamacare, the performance moved to a fantasized futurist utopia of community care, with a dying Malpede, entwined with Brouwers on the hospital bed, isolated and glorified by a spot of white light. The connection to the community, so integral to the work of LAPD and Wunderbaum, was lost, not only in this overtly aestheticized final image, but in the already isolated narrative of Malpede. The one moment of explicitly opening the story occurred when performers queried audience members about their experiences with Obamacare. The unrealized opportunity to enlarge the picture beyond that of Malpede’s healthcare curriculum vitae as an educated white male was, however, at all times present onstage with the LAPD and Wunderbaum performers. The exclusive focus on Malpede made explicit the lack of community inclusion in the performance. The attention to place, and interaction with those inhabiting the place, which grounds the work of both of these companies, was absent, diminishing their work to a simplified polemic on healthcare in the United States.
Lola Arias, in collaboration with her performers and artistic team, also put the personal onstage to examine the political in El Año en que nací (The Year I Was Born). However, by expanding the stories told to include each of the nine performers, a more nuanced picture unfolded of individual existence in a totalitarian state: Pinochet’s Chile. Similar to Hospital, Arias relied upon Brechtian alienation devices, such as occasionally breaking character in direct address, to critically engage the audience in the separate tales of each performer. The premise of the piece, however, depended not on the performance of self and story (as with Malpede), but that of self once removed: an enactment and retelling of the parents’ stories.
With the years of their birth printed on their backs, the cast began the performance by running in a circle to the beat of Alejandro Gómez Sepúlveda’s electric-guitar music. Not necessarily actors, Arias chose these performers because of their family stories, purposefully selecting a mix of political and social backgrounds. Moving from musician to narrator, Sepúlveda then recounted, embedded within the story of his journalist father, the coup d’état that abolished the civilian government of Salvador Allende and began the decades-long military dictatorship of Pinochet. As a radio recording taken from the day of the coup played, performers drew a map on the floor, locating their parents and them- selves (born and unborn) on that day in Santiago. Throughout the night the performers drew maps only to then erase them, located families only to then dislocate them. Several times, Arias had the performers break into a line in front of the audience to identify their parents’ politics (from far Left to far Right), their class (poor to rich), and even the color of the performers’ skin (dark to light). Arguing and reorganizing themselves on the lines (for example: Are your politics defined by ideology or practice? Is it the skin of my belly or my face?), the performers illustrated the impossibility of stabilizing identity in memory or moment. Arias revealed self and story as consistently fluid and open to revision: left only with the evidence of their parents’ lives (a photograph, a pair of pregnant-woman overalls, a bit of hearsay), performers constructed a tenuous version of what was in order to place themselves momentarily in the present, and then imagine an uncertain future (symbolized by a coin toss at the end to determine a left- or right-wing political reign in Chile).
Both Hospital and El Año en que nací drew from the same post-dramatic vocabulary: for example, the self-reflexive awareness of performer and performance as performing, the incorporation of media, the irruption of the “real” within the performed and vice versa, and so on. But working against that aesthetic was the desire that a coherent political message reach the audience through, in the end, a clarifying causality. This is not to argue that a post-dramatic aesthetic cannot operate politically, because it can and arguably is, at all times, political through its refusal to offer that consoling causality; it is, however, to argue that in both pieces, there was a disconnect between the desire of the creators and the form of the creation. Each piece had a lesson that demanded an intelligible chronology, forcing Arias at the end to recite a post-Pinochet timeline of events that erased the very complexity of narrative and identity that she had, until that point, developed. The performance petered out into a lesson of important dates, leading to the recent election of Michelle Bachelet as president.
Niwa Gekidan Penino’s The Room Nobody Knows (directed by Tanino) and Public in Private / Clément Layes’s solo performance Allege withdrew from overt political or social critiques. Tanino created a self-contained wonder cabinet; divided horizontally, both upper and lower worlds of the cabinet were so limited in height as to barely allow the stooped bodies of the performers to move. An anthropomorphized sheep and hog inhabited the upper level and, in the lower, an aging student (Kenji) prepared for his entrance exams in math and awaited the arrival of his older brother, whom Kenji incestuously desired (a desire his brother quickly fulfilled on his arrival through a series of passionate entanglements on the floor). The narrative of this piece was beside the point, as Tanino’s interest was in the visual. Phalli were everywhere: the hog and sheep polishing phallic chairs and table, the aging student crafting representations of his brother as phallic sculpture. Tanino, a former psychiatrist, created surreal, subterranean rooms of phallic servitude that were both disconcerting (Really? More phalli?) and oddly beautiful (sheep, hog, Kenji, and his brother played a mesmerizing rendition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on overtly phallicized Japanese shakuhachis, the recital ending with Kenji doing a balletic lunge while fellating his shakuhachi). This intensely private vision in which Kenji is, at the end, left alone with his brother’s phallic sculpture positioned between his legs was simply offered to the audience as it voyeuristically traveled through the psychic netherworld of Tanino.
Offering neither his id nor his ego to the audience, Layes played with words and things. This solo work had the same phenomenological verve as that of Richard Foreman, both playfully challenging the audience’s perception of things onstage, but with Layes using a minimal set and far fewer performers. The performance began with the sound of boiling, the sight of the coffee pot, the unfurling of the steam, and then the entrance of Layes, face to floor, with a glass balanced on the back of his head. Through simple interactions with objects (pouring water into a glass, spilling water, wiping water up with a washcloth, and intermittently watering a plant by pouring water into the glass on his head and using his head to buffer the stream into the plant), Layes gave each action its own discrete moment of being and each object (coffee pot, washcloth, bucket, plant, and so on) its own contemplative space. Layes often bracketed out the plant by placing it downstage, walking upstage to a table, motioning for a spot- light on the plant and accompanying music (David Byrne’s “Like Humans Do”), only to then abruptly dismiss both light and music and return to his actions. Layes’s eventual jiggling of the glass to reveal his face was both high comedy and absurd beauty, with each jiggle its own suspended event.
Midway through the piece, Layes finally spoke, explaining that that the water is “ocean,” the washcloth “dreams,” the plant “life,” the coffeepot “science,” and so on. The things, separated from their words, attached to new words and interacted with other word/things (for example, dreams went to the “ocean” as the washcloth plopped into the water), leading Layes to construct an ever-accelerating, equally intelligible and nonsensical story, occasionally punctured by a nod to the mundane (the table remained a “table”) and the sublime (the stage curtain blossoming open to Layes’s utterance “that’s beautiful”). Bracketing out moment and object, this playful, simple piece revealed the possibility of encountering the thing in art—unhinging, at least slightly, our perceptions of what exists.
Tanino and Layes created autonomous, easily dis/placeable worlds onstage through constructing a theatrical language that, in its challenge to perception, unraveled our own social understandings of ourselves and our world. LAPD’s and Wunderbaum’s work, grown from community, and, arguably, El Año en que nací were dependent on a shared history and life with the audience, from which a direct enactment of change could then occur (providing affordable healthcare in the United States and ensuring a just society in Chile). The audience, a majority of whom were Minnesotans, either did not participate in that history (Arias) and therefore had to be given a primer on it, or they lacked connection to the life and work of Malpede (LAPD / Wunderbaum); in both cases, the desired politicization of the audience was not lost, but weakened.
In Jackson’s analysis of socially engaged art, she argues for performance that exposes its own contingency by explicitly addressing those infrastructures that actually support the performance and performers. The relational webs devalued in neo- liberal discourse are then restored to the audience’s consciousness. None of the performances in the Walker’s New World Vision included this structural unveiling; but, arguably, it is this view that would enable the spectator to realize her own participation in this global performance economy (the local and the global are not separate, but embedded within each other). Lacking that vision, the unexamined practice of migrating performances runs the risk of dislocating the performance from the audience and diluting the political potential of pieces that profoundly speak to the global community.