by Christine Shan Shan Hou
Gertrude Stein once said in a radio interview: “if you enjoy it, you understand it.” I return to this statement every now and again, like a lucky charm. I have fully convinced myself of its truth. And yet, every so often I see a performance in which understanding (of the old-fashioned sort) and enjoying have a more complicated relationship.
These pieces usually have a loose, overarching narrative. My battle with narrative structures within performance is a neurotic one. One part of me wants a plot-driven structure; the other part of me wants to do away will all of it—to experience, to feel the work without it. [NOTE: I do not discriminate against narrative-based work; I just have a difficult time focusing on anything outside of “what’s supposed to happen next.”]
Big Dance Theater, co-founded by Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson, with its signature blend of…well, the obvious, lives in this fuzzy in-between space that has always proven to be most challenging for me. Since 1991, Lazar and Parson have created over 15 hybrid works, collaborating with a wide range of artists, actors, dancers, composers, and designers. Big Dance Theater’s relationship (or is it a collaboration?) with narrative is strangely paradoxical—a mishmash of appropriation, obliteration, distraction, reinvention, and reincarnation.
So how do I cross this murky territory?
Crossing unknown territory plays a prominent role in the company’s newest production, Ich, Kürbisgeist, written by Sibyl Kempson. Set in a dystopian, medieval world and delivered entirely in an invented language—it sounds like a blend of Scandinavian-Germanic and English—Ich, Kürbisgeist follows five bizarre and frantic, characters, troubled souls if you will, as they get drunk on pumpkin seeds, engage in curious harvesting rituals, morph into mystical creatures, converse in senseless monologues, and dance. Most of the movement is performed calmly and matter-of factly, like an obscure daily chore mixed in with elements of folklore. I wanted more of these strange, choreographed moments (and to be able to see them better).
The audience (36 people max) sits in black swivel chairs, creating an intimate 360-degree viewing experience. We are surrounded by a shoddy stage consisting of a rectangular wooden board elevated by VHS tapes; a DJ booth of monitors, modulators, a variety of electronic equipment, and a whole lot of wires, housing the production manager/performer, Brendan Regimbal; an open space with pumpkins scattered about the exposed basement floor; and a child-sized tent pitched in a corner shaft way. (Unfortunately, much of the action in this open space gets lost if you are not sitting in the back row.) The artist Joanne Howard has created an impressively schizophrenic installation, one that is all too fitting in the Chocolate Factory’s basement post-Hurricane Sandy.
The characters, dressed in costumes by Suzanne Bocanegra, look like Salvation Army pilgrims from a children’s variety show. The women wear doll aprons as bonnets, amongst other silly head pieces, wooden clogs, large velvety cloaks, and oversized glasses. The men sport white headbands tied around their chins and heads as if suffering from chronic toothaches. The set, costume design, and language make for an overwhelming atmosphere that at times feels frustratingly claustrophobic.
During a pumpkin harvesting ruckus the cast shouts such phrases as “Scoo-urp um Bag um/ Roll em,/ Jab um,/ Puck um,/ Bust um,” while violently hurling pumpkins against a wall. “Tro der brokkt halves awey!” Ooldstre Erc (Eric Dyer) shouts. The protagonist, Tymbl Gurl, played by an astute and memorable, Tymberly Canale, hears “wee, tiny tinywee scraams” coming from the “kuerbissen,” or pumpkins. This sets off a surreal sequence of events that follows Tymbl as she encounters a frightening forest of “divided” selves, runs into “writches” (Molly Hickok and Kourtney Rutherford) and a troll with a gnarly claw (played by Dyer), is forced to marry a priest (Paul Lazar), and mysteriously grows pumpkins on her rumpus. There is also the occasional appearance of an evil Tony Oursler-esque pumpkin god in the form of a video projection (designed by Josh Higgason).
Ich, Kürbisgeist has a hysterical, nervous energy about it—perhaps too much energy—and deciphering its nonsensical monologues and dialogues seems beside the point. (Does translating a play in real time sound enjoyable to you?) Instead, Kempson’s imaginary language washes over me, sweeping me up in a haze of absurdity and confusion, yet ultimately keeping me at arms length.
We, the audience, become outsiders looking in on insiders fearing their own unknown outsiders. It’s ambiguously tautological in that way, and Big Dance Theater adds to this with video art (à la Monty Python), heavy metal guitar riffs, and simple yet unexpected pairings of text and movement.
In one captivating section, Canale and Rutherford say a prayer while lying on their sides and communicating through a secret sign language: “Protection of yern wives from whoredoms wuth strange gods. At all costs, all costs./ Cult of sacred groves nand treehs…” In another, Lazar and Dyer, in unison, squeeze a vat of Purell onto their hands, slap them, and shake the viscous liquid everywhere. What?
“If you enjoy it, you understand it.”
But who are these people? And why do I feel so uncomfortable and far away from them? What is this sense of foreboding? And why don’t I want to know more? As these questions swirl around me like my body in the swivel chair, I realize that maybe I shouldn’t be trying to cross this territory, or make sense of it, as much as spend time in it. Feel it. Be in it, if only temporarily.
Christine Shan Shan Hou is a poet and arts writer living in Brooklyn, New York.