Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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July 28, 2012

Jessica Emmanuel in Poor Dog Group's The Murder Ballad Photo: Steven Gunther/REDCAT 2012
The ninth edition of REDCAT’s New Original Works festival kicked off on Thursday. And if the opening weekend of this three week festival is any indication, this may be one of NOW’s most ambitious programs yet. Of course, the festival is all about exactly what it says, brand new works often in various stages of development. That can mean a raw unpolished feeling to some of the pieces, but it can also indicate a powerful unexpected energy. And while it is not a competition in any way, Thursday’s program started off with a piece that will be hard to beat in terms of depth, vision, and ferocious impact.

That hour long piece was from Los Angeles’ own Poor Dog Group, the experimental theater collective founded by former CalArts students in 2008. The work, The Murder Ballad, is different in scope from their former projects focusing more heavily on dance elements than prior outings. However, the understated impact, and the piece’s brazen, pointed reflections on race, sexual identity, and authority are more potent and succinctly put than just about anything I can remember in recent memory. The Murder Ballad takes its title from the lengthy blues song written by Jelly Roll Morton at the start of the 20th Century and only recorded by Alan Lomax in 1938 with the help of a little alcohol and 7 aluminum discs which captured the New Orleans legend. The performance is stunning and serves as the soundtrack for what is largely a dance piece with minimal spoken elements. The episodic tale, rife with curse words and explicit sex recounts the story of an African-American woman who murders a woman she has discovered is cheating with her man. She is eventually tried, sent to prison for life, and starts up a sexual relationship with another woman while there. Despite the obviously salacious elements of the story, there is a certain inevitability to the story as well, like Greek tragedy. It’s a sense that all of the things that happen to us are still somehow predetermined and that there is a beauty in that itself.

There are only two performers – the enthralling dancer Jessica Emmanuel who poses, struts, and almost flies throughout the entire length of the piece, not so much acting out the events of the song as suggesting the underlying unexpressed context like some modern day listener reflecting on how little we’ve changed despite our efforts to convince ourselves we have in the last hundred years. This all takes place on top of a white tarp with matching rear projection screen that occasionally provides live streaming images captured from above. Her lithe, at times nearly naked, form is periodically accompanied by a near comic counterpoint from actor Jesse Saler. He radiates sexuality just as easily as Ms. Emmanuel, soaked in his polo shirt and briefs with his large thighs providing a certain counterpoint to her lighter more delicate frame. The contrast in and of itself draws on issues about sexual identity and power relations that the piece, of course, doesn’t attempt to answer as much as explore the deeper meaning in Morton’s often funny, frequently explicit tale.

Jose Luis Blondet, Carolyn Shoemaker, and Juliana Snapper with Opera Povera Photo: Steven Gunther/REDCAT 2012
The works that followed covered very different areas in a more is more sort of fashion with varying degrees of success. The collective Opera Povera took on Pauline Oliveros’ To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation. The 1970 work was intended to capture Oliveros’ own response to the burgeoning feminist movement of the time drawing parallels between the two women in terms of the effect patriarchy had on their histories. The wordless hour long “opera” is scored mostly for sighs, gasps, and sobbing noises that were performed here by co-creator of the production Juliana Snapper and Carolyn Shoemaker. The staging that Snapper and Sean Griffin conceived further wrapped the elements in Oliveros’ score into the history of Cheryl Crane, the daughter of Lana Turner who would later stab and kill Johnny Stompanato in what she said was an effort to protect her mother. If this sounds like it’s getting complicated, it is, and the staging involves a handful of other characters as well who aren’t always clearly outlined. Cast members at times appear to be Solanas, Monroe, Turner, Crane, and others. Sometimes these references are taken seriously and others not, which is in the spirit of Oliveros’ music. But I’ll admit the references become so complicated that by midpoint it was harder and harder to maintain focus on the inexplicable stage events. And while the notion of the sobbing and gasping that fill the score were mesmerizing, the show did sink under the weight of its own pretentions in the end.

From Susan Simpson's Exhibit A Photo: Steven Gunther/REDCAT 2012
The closing work was Susan Simpson’s Exhibit A, a Los Angeles influenced fantasia of the mid-20th Century. Again electronic music elements were combined with an often comic theater performance that reflected on the 1948 draining of the Silverlake reservoir, the modernist utopian architecture of Richard Neutra, and Harry Hay and the history of the Mattachine Society. Simpson was fascinated by the parallels in the utopian mind set that informed Hay and Neutra as well as science fiction from the period that she had come across in papers at the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at USC. Exhibit A takes off to space from there, imagining Hay, Neutra and others as part of an outer space exploratory cell headed for planet Edendale, Silverlake’s original neighborhood name. The characters are represented by huge wooden puppets that interact with the live jumpsuited cast freely. Landscape flies and is reformed with little warning. The piece dabbles in surreal kitsch and history freely, producing something that doesn’t take itself too seriously but loses steam before its conclusion. The connections are made, but the larger point seems diffuse and uncertain here. Still it’s a collision of great, local materials that begs out for further development.

It was the kind of evening one hopes for at the festival overall – works that overdose on ambition as opposed to those that feel like they have nowhere to go. The REDCAT curators are off to a spectacular start on this front this year, so be sure to check out the next two weeks of programming downtown.

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