Sunday, August 30, 2015

Theater Review - The Map Is The Territory - Fire Drill

If you haven’t seen one of Fire Drill’s showcases of local and touring experimental artists (like spring 2014’s Bring In The Indigo, or last winter’s Absolute Bliss), you really owe it to yourself to follow them so you get word the next time one springs up.  Like their latest offering, The Map Is The Territory, these showcases pop up for only a day or two, but they’re always stuffed full of material that plays with your head and your notion of performance and audience in intriguing and entertaining ways.

“The dystopian future I’m most terrified of is happening now.”

The Map Is The Territory also served as an inaugural event for Fire Drill in their new studio space, Fresh Oysters Performance Research (basically the building right next door to Open Eye Figure Theatre).  Fire Drill will be sharing the space with Skewed Visions and choreographer Laurie Van WierenThe Map Is The Territory was a fitting way to invite people into the space, as it was largely local performers this time out, with one significant visitor from Seattle.

“The blood I didn’t ask for and the air I now choose to receive.”

That visiting artist would be Tim Smith-Stewart and his artistic partner Madeline Marchal.  They shared two segments of a much larger, evolving work entitled (deep breath) Awaiting Oblivion, or How To Be OK When Everything Is Not OK: Temporary Solutions For Surviving The Dystopian Future We Find Ourselves In At Present - (phew).  The story behind the piece is almost as fascinating as the performance itself.  Smith-Stewart is being sent anonymous packages of art and text from a street artist who calls him/herself AO.  AO also sends instructions, some of which are to turn these mailings of material into live performance.  The lengthy but very apt title is AO’s, as are the titles of the individual temporary solutions.  The ones presented at this outing were #4 - You’re Not Icarus, You’ll Make It, and #1,113 Mermaids Stay Free, or Live or Die, But Don’t Poison Everything.

“I say Live, Live because of the sun, 
the dream, the excitable gift.”

The basic structure of each performance goes like this: one person performs the text while the other person unveils a dizzying array of photographs, text and pieces of art on the surface of a table directly under a video camera that projects the image larger than life on the wall behind them.  It’s a dance of words and images juggled by two performers in perfect, fluid synchronization with one another.  It’s a very impressive feat that at the same time is careful to always draw attention to itself as performance.  AO’s words are being channeled (first through Smith-Stewart on Icarus, secondly through Marchal on Mermaids), and he wants the audience aware of this.  Smith-Stewart wears a bluetooth headset that feeds the spoken text into his ear while he’s performing it.

“Are you OK?”
“Absolutely not, but please keep walking.”

At one point in Icarus, a flow chart constructed by AO is unrolled and taped up on the wall to make the audience (and the performer) visually aware of all the corporate entities to which the artist is beholden.  AO doesn’t want the audience to think the piece of art is the revolution itself.  The art is already compromised by the messenger.  The revolution happens separate from the art.  Because AO knew that Smith-Stewart would be performing in Minneapolis, they researched Billy Mullaney and Emily Gastineau of Fire Drill and created an addendum flow chart of the organizations providing them with day jobs (and what the corporations and foundations supporting those organizations do to the world at large) that also got rolled out (taller than a single person) and taped to the wall.  A picture of the front of the Fresh Oysters Performance Research building was also nimbly inserted into the flow of the projected images shuffled across the table.

“When losing everything, grip anything.”

At one point the camera was turned up from the table to capture Smith-Stewart in motion, and the audience surrounding him.  Everyone present gets pulled into, and indicted by, the performance.  At the end of Mermaids, Marchal and Smith-Stewart raised a flag with an image of Anne Sexton above our heads, and had us stand for the recitation of her poem Live or Die, But Don’t Poison Everything.  Marchal’s performance of AO’s Mermaids was a meditation on and celebration of Sexton the poet, a story about the (imaginary?) mermaids who lived in houses destined for destruction, and the reengineering of paychecks from a day job into art or typing paper for various poems and manifestos of resistance.

“The non-profit arts industrial complex.”

Now on one level I’m sure that all sounds really precious and self-indulgent, but trust me, in performance, it’s pretty mesmerizing.  It’s a perfect example of the notion that you have to see some things with your own eyes, live in performance.  Reporting or words on a page alone simply don’t do it justice.  Which is why it’s a great service that Fire Drill brings these kinds of artists to town, to screw with our heads and make us reevaluate our definitions of live performance, and our role as audience members for live performance.  Just the physical existence of the things AO created as the launching pad for these performances is mind-boggling - the care with which they’re put together, the actual typing on a manual typewriter and not a computer keyboard, it’s really something.

“Is anyone seeing this?”

All of the above is not to imply that the local artists on display didn’t also deliver great stuff.  Smith-Stewart, Marchal and AO are just operating on a whole other level here, and Awaiting Oblivion and its individual segments are highly detailed, fully realized works.  All of the local artists are using The Map Is The Territory as an incubator for works in progress.  The works are still taking shape, and need some exposure to an audience to capture what’s working and what’s not.  Thankfully, a whole lot’s working just fine here.

“They tell us not to cry because we deserve this.”

Hmong dancer/choreographer Magnolia Yang Sao Yia gathered a half dozen other Hmong women (Ahne Her, Gaosong V. Heu, Itly Thayiegn, Nplooj Siab Vaj, Holy Yang, and Prescillia Yang Sao Yia) combining poetry, spoken word, music (on a qeej) and movement in her piece Shhh…silence.  The performance was an exercise in finding the voice of silenced Hmong women and finally giving it permission, and volume.  It feels very much like the opening movement of something much longer: now that the voice has been found, what will it say?

“I have been taught to be ashamed of my voice.”

Two media pieces also joined the roster of live performance.  Egyptian-born US citizen and poet/performance artist Moheb Soliman offered up the short film Naturalized.  The idea of binding or connecting a person to a country, to the land of their choice, was represented in the film by the physical metaphor of people being lowered and raised on some kind of crane into a muddy pool of water.  The spectator only sees the heads of the people, upside down, as they are raised and lowered, each twice.  The second dunking is always a little deeper, but the subjects are never completely submerged.  You can hear the whir and whine of the engine of the machine that moves them.  You see the water droplets raining down from their wet hair as they are raised again.  The boundary of the pool of water is surrounded in small stones and fallen leaves.  Two men, two women, and finally the artist, the film fading out as he goes in for a third dunking.  Not entirely sure about the point of this one.  It wasn’t performed so much as it was something that was staged to happen that was filmed.  Observance of the ritual itself may be enough for the artist.  Maybe I was wrong to look for anything beyond that.

“Godzilla is a metaphor.  A suit is ephemeral.”

An audio-only offering came from local writer/performance artist Ali O’Reilly, excerpts from her work Men Tell You About A Time They Rescued An Injured Bird From a Storm Drain.  Excerpts were played at the top of the evening and then at two other points between other acts.  Three different male voices, what the artist calls invented text written and performed by local male artists.  Men tell stories of times they helped animals, as if revealing incidents of tenderness and emotion are accpetable as long as there aren’t other human beings involved.  The program says the project “uses moments of fabricated vulnerability to explore the compartmentalization of emotional and physical interpersonal intimacy.”  This piece may have been least served by presentation in an excerpted capacity.  I get the feeling I’d probably understand it better, and get the desired impact, if it were allowed to play out, and the feelings to accumulate in response to the project as a whole.  Side note: I love the title of her upcoming book of poetry: What Is The Opposite of a Machine Gun And How Do I Empty That Into You?

“I have the mark of Ghengis Khan.”

Local director Lisa Channer used the showcase to develop ten new minutes of material from a longer piece called Rant in which she tries to capture the spirit and personality of her father, and their unusual relationship.  Traditional parenting was apparently not something in the cards for Harold Channer.  He was more focused on changing the world, or at least talking about and planning to execute that change.  He doesn’t travel, so his daughter comes to him. Channer uses a combination of spoken word, computer and film technology and, like the three blind men trying to figure out an elephant, focuses in on different parts of her picture of her father, that may or may not lead to an accurate representation of the whole.  A suit hangs in an alcove above a chocolate cake on a stand, under the table holding the cake sits a child (Daniel Rovinsky), occasionally engaging Channer in dialogue, other times flashing his reading lamp in the Morse code for S.O.S.  Volunteers (regardless of gender or age) are drawn from the audience to read two person father daughter scenes.  A recorded conversation between father and daughter gets scrambled through the projection of voice dictation software.  Channer’s father developed a sudden affinity for the film Birdman and shared it with her.  Trying to decode the message in that gesture comprises the second part of the new material.  As with the other excerpts, I’m curious to see where this one is going.

“You go through the verbs to get to the cake.”

The evening concluded with local writer/performer Paige Collette presenting her piece Food Blog. Her alter ego here is Patricia Lake, Mary Kay cosmetics consultant and food blogger.  The food blog is a calling for her.  A way to be there for her fellow humans in their time of need, which naturally also revolve around food.  I’m always happy to see Paige Collette’s name on a talent roster because I know I’m going to be entertained.  Whether it’s one half of a two-person play like Buttercream and Scotch, or a solo outing like she did in 20% Theatre Company’s Q-Stage a couple of years back, she’s serving up a variation on the type of woman for whom words like brassy and ballsy are a compliment.

“Here’s where I see a parallel between mental illness and sex.”

Collette’s characters frequently say outrageous things, but the thing that makes them doubly funny is the kernel of truth that lurks inside them.  The other thing that’s engaging about Collette’s writing is that it embraces the pains and disappointment of life but is never dragged down by them.  In the end, there’s a freewheeling celebration of life and sensuality.  Here in Food Blog, it’s a dance full of wild abandon - plus ketchup and a roll of tin foil.  Collette peels off layers, tosses off her wig and encourages an audience member to help cover the front of her in ketchup.  While that might sound odd or transgressive, it ends up being mostly playful.  Just like past encounters, it made me look forward to whatever Collette’s going to try next.

“Any of these can fill in that masculine coloring book for you.”

Something I found interesting about the evening as a whole was an unintentional commonality of many of the pieces - their almost complete dependence on technology.  Though designed as live performance, there were so many projections and sound effects involved, I couldn’t help but see the pattern.  I even wrote the note “So many silver Apple laptops” in my book.  I’m still not entirely sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s definitely a thing.  The use of technology is such an integral part of the language and movement of Awaiting Oblivion that it would be a much less rich piece without it (it would survive, because the words and the performance are so compelling, but an extra layer of meaning and audience engagement would definitely be lost).  Some of the other offerings hadn’t fully integrated the technology into their DNA yet.  Maybe they need it, maybe they don’t.  That’s what workshopping’s for.

Be on the lookout for the next Fire Drill showcase.  There’s always something, several somethings, you’ve never seen before.

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

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