Four Reviews from the American Realness Festival

by Hope Mohr

Brief impressions from four shows that I saw at the 2016 American Realness Festival.

Erin Markey
A Ride on the Irish Cream
January 17, 2016
Experimental Theater
Co-presented with Abrons Art Center & the American Realness Festival

Let’s start with the best thing I saw at American Realness: Erin Markey’s Ride on the Irish Cream. This is a case of indescribability indicating quality. A genre-busting work, Irish Cream is a dream ballet of musically scored childhood remembrances. The musical composition for the band is excellent—a series of rock ballads with unpredictable structures, tight harmonies and unique melodic lines. As the lead singer, Markey has a great set of pipes. Two other women provide back-up vocals and guitar, so there’s a girlband vibe (men provide drums and piano, but their presence remains in the background). Markey’s original lyrics are seemingly about small things—for example, her love of Scotch, her fondness for cleaning with warm, sudsy water, or wildflowers (“Queen Anne is just a flower/Her scepter is her stem”). But these poetic details are points on a map to Markey’s internal world, awash in forces too big to name: 

I got a secret
I never told you
It’s a pretty good one
It’s a dirty wet rag
At the bottom of the bucket

There’s no story per se, but instead a mysterious series of vignettes that center on Markey’s character, Reagan, and in particular her childhood relationship with Irish Cream, who is both a boat and a horse.  Becca Blackwell, a trans performer, plays Irish Cream. The vignettes between Markey and Blackwell are full of humorous banter that moves back and forth between child and adult realms.  They argue like kids about skipping stones and finding magical jewels in the woods.  They pretend to be at a bar, ordering microbrews with outlandish names like Birth Mom.  They talk about breaking up.  Under the playful details, lust looms.

The energy of a girl on the cusp of consciousness drives the work. One vignette late into the show recounts how Reagan’s mother forced her to take tap and swimming classes. As part of the vignette, a door opens to the outside of the theater to let in a procession of young women in leotards. One at a time, the somber leotard girls enter to perform the same gymnastics pass. Over and over they execute the moves.  When the procession ends, Markey sprawls exhausted on the floor.

At the end of the piece, Reagan saves Irish Cream with mouth to mouth resuscitation. The life saving gesture transforms into a song of longing.  Is Markey nostalgic for a lost innocence? Or reclaiming her adolescent fires?  “If you can find it, you can keep it,” sings Markey.  

Irish Cream was surreal, but not alienating.  Its conceptual sophistication was submerged, but present reassuringly through its craft. As a result, I trusted the performers enough to have an emotional ride.  Throughout, Markey’s sense of humor completely bewitched me.  A Ride on the Irish Cream reminded me how vital it is to honor our private, idiosyncratic worlds, and it demonstrated the possibility of creating unique performance forms that do those private worlds justice. Irish Cream is also a perfect example of work that is contemporary not because it echoes current trends, but because it stands apart from them. 

--

Jillian Pena
Panopticon
Saturday January 16, 2016
Experimental Theater
Abrons Art Center

Beckett meets ballet meets mumblecore in this 50 minute mirror duet. A young white man and young white woman (Alexandra Albrecht and Andrew Champlin) bring a deadpan affect to a steady flow of ballet vocabulary with quirky insertions of distortion. The performers overlay the movement with intermittent vocal exchanges expressing low-level despair.  With its baseline of subdued crisis, the work felt like a dance version of a Miranda July movie. Here’s a sample of the performance text:

Can we leave?
No.
Why not?
We need to wait.
Ah.

Or this:


Are you happy?
(Pause)
What?
Are you content?
I suppose.

In addition to snippets of joyless conversation, the dancers insert short verbalizations of movement (da dada da da). The ambient music recalls the slow swell of a moment in a soap opera when the heroine realizes that she’s married her brother. We’re trapped and the performers are trapped.  As an audience member I was comatose for the first twenty minutes. Around minute twenty, I felt briefly mesmerized. But only briefly. I appreciate the performer commitment required to carry off this kind of tonal drone, but the overall impact was like soaking in self-conscious malaise.

--

Bureau for the Future of Choreography
Score for a Lecture
Sunday January 18, 2016
Underground Theater
Abrons Art Center

Score for a Lecture begins with a drumroll and a call to meeting of the Bureau for the Future of Choreography.  The officiant announces that we are all Bureau members.  She explains that the event will proceed with her proposing a score that will occur within time constraints.  We will execute the score. Certain members of the Bureau will be witnesses. When the allotted time expires, the witnesses will report back, and we'll discuss what happened.

The score proceeds as follows: Members of the Bureau instruct us to stand in a circle on the stage, link arms, and introduce ourselves. Members of the Bureau hand us a number on an index card that indicates our starting position. One at a time, after we receive our number, we say our name again into a mic then follow a neon path of gaff tape that winds through all five floors of the Abrons Art Center. Along the gaff path, the Bureau has taped large numbers to the floor at intervals. Number 1 is in the theater.  As you walk further along the path, the numbers increase. I am number 22, so I need to wind my way for several minutes through closets, theaters, music practice rooms, the festival production office, etc., until I reach my assigned position. 

After the audience lands in our appointed positions along the gaff tape path, a member of the Bureau stationed at Position Zero inside the theater sends out a series of verbal messages to the audience member at Position 1.  The person at Position 1 then delivers the message to Position 2. Position 2 delivers the message to Position 3, and so on.  Each audience member must transmit the message to the next person in the chain by walking to next number on the gaff tape path.  

Messages pass throughout the building until they return back to the theater to a member of the Bureau stationed at Position Infinity, who then records the (botched) message. Each time you deliver the next message in the series, you progress along the gaff tape path into different parts of the building.  In between the arrival of the next message, you wait. Alone. With no phone (they asked us to leave everything in the theater).  Architecture heavily influences the waiting experience.  In one position, I watch snow falling outside the window. In another, I watch the Festival’s assistant production manager eat a sandwich. In another, I can see many other audience members on different floors, all waiting. 

When the allotted time is up, a member of the Bureau walks us back to the theater along the gaff path.  Two Bureau witnesses offer versions of what had occurred. One is a literal description. The other is a poetic riff.

The Bureau member stationed at Position Infinity then reads aloud all the mistranslations that the Score delivered to her: the Lecture.  During the Lecture, the Bureau projects the original messages on the wall.  Which is the real Lecture, the one spoken or projected? Some of the many original messages include:


Dance is the constant question of whether or not it is better to be than obey.
Sequences are events.
Structure is an architecture for the emergence of expression.
Form is a container to be fulfilled.
Viewpoint is a frame.

Of course, our execution of the telephone score mangled this original content beyond recognition. The score thus revealed performer capacity to (not) listen and (dis)obey as powerful choreographic forces.

The final section of the score was group discussion. 

Audience member: “What is the source of the text?”
Bureau answer: “Definitions. References. Judith Butler. Cheap theory!”  

Audience member: “What’s your interest in how we modify the text?”
Bureau answer: “I’m interested in the inevitability of failure.”

Failure is a pervasive Realness theme.  And yet, as one audience member notes, although the score generated failure, “there was no way for the Bureau to fail.” Indeed, Score for a Lecture succeeds as a provocative meta-narrative of choreographic activity. Where does choreography happen? In its text? In its execution? In how it is witnessed?  In its intention? Where is intention located in a group performance?

--

Larissa Velez-Jackson
Star Crap Method
Sunday January 17, 2016
Experimental Theater
Abrons Art Center

“Failure. Anticlimax. Regular climax…This is not about failure. This is about success,” Larissa Velez-Jackson says during Star Crap Method.  Failure is one of the many clichés of improvised performance that Star Crap Method satirizes.  The cliché of constant costume changes (neon green quilted warmup suit, white billowy pants with black polka dots, American flag unitard). The cliché of performer interaction with the environment (gymnastics mat, moveable theatrical lights).  The cliche of the impossible task (flossing a high heel with a theraband). The cliché of narrating your own action.  Group shape score? Check.  

As I enter the Experimental Theater, ushers ask me to reach into a large shopping bag and take a shape. “Place the shape anywhere in the space,” they invite me. “Explore the space. You can also move other shapes around.” The shapes are abstract stuffed felt objects in bright hues. Inside the theater, a rudimentary set of walls on wheels covered in mirror-like paper seal the seats off from audience access, so everyone mills about the stage in semi-darkness. Club music plays. Shapes dangle from laundry line-like ropes criss-crossing the space.  

  An improvised sculpture in Star Crap Method. 

 

An improvised sculpture in Star Crap Method. 

 

After awhile,  the music changes to the theme song from The Little Mermaid, and I hear three amplified voices singing along.  The song ends.  Larissa Velez-Jackson proclaims in a self-mocking, grandiose way:  “Karaoke vocal warmup!”   She then invites us to do “the choreographic gesture of taking your seat.”

Have you ever felt like performance art was an inside joke that you didn’t get? This is the show for you.  True to Velez-Jackson's bio, which says that she “employs a deep humor to grant audiences universal access to contemporary art’s critical discourse,"  Star Crap Method does a great job of making improvisation both accessible and laughable.  

Star Crap Method gives its performers complete permission to engage in any sort of behavior, from asking existential questions (“What is my body?”) to burping.  Happily, the one thing the performers don't do is take themselves seriously. They use faux academic jargon to explain the Star Crap Method: it involves “vulnerabilizing," “creative wizardistics, “ and “taking symmetry with a grain of salt.”  The dancing is unfinished, full of flamboyant gesture and sloppy leaps. Unison sections look optional.

Each performer has a solo. When Velez-Jackson’s solo begins, she says “This is my solo. And I start with the details.” She is doing articulations with her big toe, which is wrapped in a theraband.  Her solo ends with “a grand anticlimactic gesture,” which involves her attempt to snap the crotch of her leotard over baggy pants.

At the end of the piece, the performers roll the mirrored walls to re-form the fourth wall. The performers do a final costume change behind the mirrored wall while loudly debating how their performance went. Three sets of drag heels are lowered to the floor from ropes. The three performers emerge from behind the mirrored wall and put on the heels.

Velez-Jackson announces that the performance will end with “a fabulous kinetic sculpture.”  The performers tangle themselves up in the ropes dangling from the ceiling. They invite the audience back into the space to place shapes on the sculpture. Everyone joins the performers in the space, smiling.