Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Review - Q-Stage - Set B - 20% Theater - Abuse and Release - 4.5 stars

At first glance, the titles of the two pieces in Set B of Q-Stage from 20% Theatre Company aren’t a lot of help.  The first one is called "___________" and the second one is called “e”.  But, actually, once you see them, the titles are kinda perfect.  It’s that kind of show.  Both deal with queer and trans bodies, the first piece through scripted performance, the second piece through dance and spoken word.  Both works in progress are still finding their final form, but each of them contains a lot of powerful material.

“An easy but effective measure to dispel unwanted spirits.”

Of course that doesn’t mean they’re always easy to sit through. The first half of the evening, “___________”, is the most challenging on that score.  Written by Sami Pfeffer, who also co-directed with Kai Greiner, both developing the piece with their performers, real-life spouses Beckett Love and Suzi Love, "___________" is about being haunted by and not entirely able to escape an emotionally abusive relationship. The piece inspired trigger warnings in the lobby, in the program, as well as in the welcome speech by Beckett.  Audience members were advised to do whatever they felt they needed to in order to look after themselves, including leaving the theater for the lobby if necessary. Someone next to me did just that partway into the piece.  They admitted upon their return for the second half of the program that they just couldn’t make themselves watch it anymore.  "___________" doesn’t abuse the audience, but it’s definitely hard to watch.

“I’m not open to engaging you right now.  Please respect that.”

One of “___________”’s primary goals seems to be to get the audience to recognize that abuse occurs in queer couples just as it does in straight couples, and that psychological abuse can be just as damaging and long-lasting as sexual abuse, or the kind of abuse that leaves a bruise you can see.  It’s been a battle just to get the larger society to see queer people of any sort on the most basic existential level.  Seeing other problems queers face on top of that is yet another challenge of perception. "___________" tries to meet that challenge and bridge that gap. This draft of the piece may be a little too good at what it does. It’s so convincing as a story of abuse that it’s almost unwatchable.  That’s actually a badge of honor for writer, directors and performers alike.  The trick for the next go-round of "___________" in its development is to find a way to get people to walk into the theater in the first place, and then to find a way to keep them from giving up on the story because it’s too painful.

“You tied all my clothes into knots.”

It’s good that venues like Q-Stage exist, in which challenging stories like "___________" can be incubated.  I’m not sure how it would survive its infant stages of development if it didn’t have 20% Theatre lifting it up and giving it a platform from which to speak.  It’s been difficult for me to write about this, not because I’ve had this sort of abuse in my own life, thankfully, but because I’m struggling with the whole notion of how you tell a difficult story but still reach an audience with your intended message.

“Some people have suffered real abuse and you’re just undermining their pain.”

Because the message of "___________" is still a little fuzzy. The basics are clear. Suzi Love’s character has survived an emotionally abusive relationship, but is so haunted by it still that their memories have the impact for the audience of being the character’s present reality. Beckett Love’s character is nice every now and again, but largely their behavior is a string of micro- and not so micro-aggressions that chips away at nearly all the self-worth that Suzi’s character has. (I honestly don’t know how these two can do this to each other repeatedly and then go home together and be OK. It must take a lot of self-care both individually and as a pair.  They’re that convincing onstage.)

“We’ll need another’s support as we delve deeper into the darkness.”

In the present, post-breakup, Suzi’s character works for a cheesy tourist attraction that purports to take groups in search of spirits in a haunted house.  The idea of being possessed and haunted is a good match for the character’s real life.  Right now it might be a little too on-the-nose.  If the script leaned on it a little less, let the audience come to it, rather than having it handed to them, the impact of the revelation might feel a bit more genuine and earned.  It’s a tricky balance and "___________" is almost there.

“That memory is so cold now.”

The main challenge is structural. Beckett’s character is in control of the story at the beginning and the end and for much of the middle as well. In some ways it’s a miracle that Suzi’s character registers at all (again, a credit to writing, directing and acting). The play ends as it begins, creating a loop of time with Beckett’s character as the ringmaster. I don’t think the play intends this to be the message but with Beckett at the reins, the play could be construed as saying that Suzi will never escape, never be all right, never be in control. The abuse has no end point. Ever. Now, there are, of course, situations like that in real life.  Is that hopelessness something you want the audience to walk out with?  If so, what are you expecting them to do with that heavy weight you’re asking them to carry?  Here again "___________" is perhaps more of a cypher than it means to be.  (But that’s what second drafts are for…)

“Launch literacy into my bones, I dare you.”

“e” by contrast is a bit of a manifesto. I’ll let the artists’ words speak for a moment with their own summary:

"e" seeks to explore the intersections of race and gender identity in an interdisciplinary artistic format. two queer trans people of color articulate through movement, poetry, music, storytelling and performance art their experiences in the complex and beautiful bodies they live within. "e" touches on the stereotyping of trans-femme bodies, the exploitation of queerness and eating disorders' attachment to dysphoria. we will create our own trans queer narrative. when our voices have often been rendered silent, we will speak our truth. so often the conditioning of our bodies by mainstream media is cis and heteronormative, our racial identities are merely supporting characters or punchlines. "e" stands for exposure. stands for empathy. stands for estrogen. for elevation, enigma, evil.

What does that look like in practice? Creator/performers Simone Bernadette Williams and Holo Lue Choy fill the stage alternately with movement and words.  Williams does nearly all the talking, Choy does more than their share of the movement.  Choy is one of the best arguments I’ve seen for the notion that dancers are most definitely athletes.  The things they can do with their body are mesmerizing.  I can only imagine the degree of difficulty involved.  It’s great seeing Williams and Choy dance together, too, but whenever Choy solos, they’re a marvel.  Williams key strength is putting trans struggles into words - a poetry at once defiant and beautiful.  They are the show’s voice, and it is a powerful one.  Both artists make it clear, you do not want to mess with them.  They will fight back.

“I must have forgotten to warn your blood that it was about to boil.”

Here in “e” we again have an issue of what the ultimate message is.  The pieces of the puzzle don’t appear to be arranged in any particular order.  Each in their own way are very effective.  But collectively they aren’t currently adding up to anything larger.  The audience isn’t brought to any particular end point.  The piece just - stops.  Real life, of course, is not all one thing, headed resolutely in a certain direction with no turning or doubling back.  But art has the advantage of being able to take life and arrange it in a way that life can almost make a kind of sense.  In “e” one thing happens after another, but one thing doesn’t necessarily lead to another.

“I hope you don’t make the mistake I did - take yourself for granted.”

There is a sweet, indeed lovely, ending to “e” with the two performers sitting down together on the floor and playfully eating from pints of ice cream. (It’s the one time we actually hear Choy speak! There’s an example of building something. The entire evening we’ve seen Choy let their body do the talking, and it spoke loudly, just as if sound were coming from their mouth. It’s only when Choy finally does speak that we are reminded, oh yeah, they haven’t uttered a word all night. That tension, broken. It makes the moment of camaraderie that much more meaningful, between the two artists, and between artists and audience.)

“How can I touch somebody who won’t even touch themselves?”

Immediately before the ice cream moment, there’s a solo moment where Williams has been overwhelmed with emotions not entirely positive while painting on their naked body. This, like many juxtapositions across the evening, is striking but I’m not entirely sure the artists have decided what they want to get out of putting these two moments side by side. It doesn’t feel so much like a choice as it does just something that happened. Earlier there are several instances of dead air and silence on an empty stage which, if the components of the evening where arranged differently and the gaps eliminated, would have given the piece a better shot at building momentum from the beginning through to the end. Less stops and starts means more collective impact. How do you get one piece to feed into the next, to get something to build on what came before it? That seems to be the business of the next draft of this performance.  But in the meantime, dang, the words and the movement here are powerful.

“God forbid this is a love poem.”

20% Theatre’s Q-Stage series as a whole feels like it’s reached another level of maturity this year.  The artists all seem more self-assured and in command of their craft, and the presentations - even when still rough and unfinished - have a real polish to them this time.  It’ll be exciting to see what all these artists do next, and who Q-Stage extends its hand to next.  The next time Q-Stage comes around, you should go and see for yourself.

4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(photos courtesy of 20% Theatre: Beckett Love and Suzi Love in “___________”; Holo Lue Choy and Simone Bernadette Williams in “e”)

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