If you ever wondered what it’s like watching someone deep throat the head of a Ken doll while roller blading to the strains of Celine Dion belting out “My Heart With Go On” from the film Titanic, well, have I got a show for you! The odd thing is that the whole Ken Doll/rollerblades/Celine interlude may be the least strange, most accessible thing about Set B of 20% Theatre Company’s third annual Q-Stage developmental showcase for new queer work in progress. While the entries in Set A last weekend had a more traditional beginning/middle/end sort of structure to them, the two offerings in Set B were much more experimental, and much more works in progress.
Gender Tender (aka Will Courtney and Syniva Whitney) presented their dance/installation art piece Bent/Straight as the first half of the evening. Directed and choreographed by Whitney, underscored with music by Ariskany Records with installation art by Madeleine Bailey, Whitney and Courtney danced through a landscape of window blinds (white on one side, yellow on the other) on rolling racks, a hodge podge of different table lamps, and dizzying assortment of flashcards with black and white photos of parts of the human body.
There was an extended sequence where the performers would take turns falling down dead, as the other performer would talk out the unfortunate scenario which took their life. Toward the end, the falling down dead and other person standing over them tableau would be repeated, but this time, the living seemed to cast some sort of resurrection spell on the dead. The dead didn’t quite rise fully to their feet, but their limbs would rise again. On more than one occasion, one person would use the other as their ventriloquist’s dummy. They would start by speaking words or singing notes, moving the other’s mouth. Then the “dummy” would continue to “speak” or “sing” with no sound coming out. The audience having heard the words or the notes before, our minds filled in the missing element.
Sound provided markers, and shifts in mood and tone throughout. Light, particularly the different table lamps snapping us in and out of the dark, provided the opportunity for the performers to be found in different configurations each time the light would shift. Costume also proved key to the evolution of the piece. The performers first emerged onstage, hidden inside large black and white striped sweaters, as a single big blob of humanity, crawling over and clinging to each other in a big large amorphous striped entity. Out of the sweaters later, their T-shirts mimicked the look of a suit jacket and tie. Later still, another T-shirt gave them each a set of painted on breasts, bursting out of their formal button down “shirts.”
I haven’t a clue what Bent/Straight was “about” in any specific sense I could put into words, or even what I was supposed to feel. Maybe that’s a challenge for the next iteration of this work. For now, though, it certainly offered a whole host of images and arresting visuals, and humor, so it feels like time well spent.
The second half of the evening was A.P. Looze’s The Grief Experiments, directed by Zoe Michael, with significant voiceover support from Lisa Marie Brimmer. This would be the show with the previously mentioned Ken Doll extravaganza. In fact, in an extended video sequence set to “My Heart Will Go On,” Ken hooks up on screen with a brunette doll acquaintance and the two end up having rather vigorous sex for two dolls without any anatomically correct genitalia. Ken also ends up tossed into the middle of a stormy lake.
But The Grief Experiments isn’t about the dolls, it’s about Looze, and loss. It’s also about alcoholism, and mental illness, and suicide. Looze’s onstage persona has recently lost a loved one to suicide and is having an understandably hard time coping with it. Anger is a response that surfaces regularly in a variety of ways. Consumption of alcohol isn’t helping matters. In order to bring a little order out of chaos, Looze’s character consults a lot of self-help resources (voiced by Brimmer) to guide them in the process of organizing and purging their belongings. Admonished to fold, rather than hang things, the word “hang” takes on other meanings in the context of the loved one’s suicide.
In fact, language is something that Looze does a masterful and clever job of manipulating. Many words end up carrying multiple meanings at once in the context of The Grief Experiments. One great sequence has Looze embarking on a recipe for cookies, which gets tangled up in the 12 Steps for Alcoholics Anonymous, and the instructions for all that purging and organizing of belongings - and memories. Another memorable scene finds Looze hiding behind a sparkling blue sheet repeating the same word or phrase, leaping about and animating its meaning: blah blah, academic language, poetry, slam poetry, non sequitur, fact. It’s hard to convey on the page but the many different things that Looze does with their voice (and moving behind the sheet) are impressive and enormously entertaining.
Not everything works the way I think it’s intended. A little often goes a long way. Looze sometimes makes their point, and then keeps making it. Looze is a compelling performer so there’s no doubt the audience is with them. Trust that the audience gets it the first time. For instance, there’s a sequence where Looze alternately breathes into a paper bag, then shouts angrily at the person who has died. Unlike in all the other areas of the piece, Looze didn’t seem to have full control over their voice here. It was either normal voice or shouting, no modulation, no levels, no nuance. Now, that might have worked if they only did it once. They did it repeatedly. So not only did it start at such a high pitch of emotion it had nowhere to go, the repetition also had the effect of diluting the impact. Done once, something like that would have hit me hard. Repeated exposure desensitized me, and I fear the point was lost by overdoing it.
The lines also get fuzzy here in regard to subject matter. One gets the feeling that Looze intends for the whole to end up being greater than the sum of all the disparate parts. But it’s hard to tell just what Looze is driving at. Because grief is not mental illness is not addiction is not suicide. Often they collide, and they certainly can complicate one another. But they’re all mixed up in the same stew together here. The boundaries and definitions can get unhelpfully vague, and sometimes the exploration of one shoots off in the opposite direction from one of the others. It feels at times like the different parts of the performance are fighting each other.
Any or all of this may be intentional, of course, but it does make it hard for the audience to know where to land when it’s all done. The mix of humor and the subject matter is a good one, though, and a bold one. I don’t mean to discourage that at all. Of the two parts of Set B, Looze’s The Grief Experiments, by virtue of the fact there was a person speaking to me trying to convey meaning, reached me in a way that Gender Tender’s Bent/Straight didn’t. That said, they’re both intriguing experiments and I’m glad 20% Theatre gave them all a place to play. I’ll be curious to see what’s next from these performers and these pieces.
3-1/2 stars - Highly Recommended