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Joe Goode Performance Group

"What the Body Knows" and "Mythic, Montana"

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA

June 1, 2002
By
Mary Ellen Hunt


Saturday's performance of Mythic, Montana at the Yerba Buena Center shows us that, as the Joe Goode Performance Group (JGPG) marks its sixteenth anniversary, their new works have only deepened the company's ability to tell cogent and thoughtful stories by any means possible.

I'm always shocked when people say that they don't think JGPG members are virtuosic movers. Sure, there's a lot of talky, fragmentary views into the lives of the characters, some mournful singing in minor intervals, occasional mugging, but there are also moments of choreography that are utterly dazzling, with fearless passionate dancing. It's not all about the dancing, but in the JGPG world, nothing is about a single "art discipline". Everything from video to cabaret to set design to sound design to dancing to acting, is part of the effort to tell stories and comment on the human condition. Isn't this what real theater should be?

The program opened with last year's archly comic What the Body Knows. As with many of Goode's works, it is a convergence of several ideas, but two prominent ones: what is truth as it is expressed through the body and what does feminization mean in the modern world. There are three loosely intertwined stories, but the focal point that draws them and the piece together is Liz Burritt. Her opening monologue, filled with saccharine, wildly predictive descriptions of herself as a baby, points up both a larger infantilizing attitude towards women (to be sweet, pretty, and quiet is to be a good baby, but also to be ladylike) and also the vast expectations that are laid upon us from birth, many of which have to do with gender identity.

Multimedia collages are a very tricky thing to pull off, but What the Body Knows offers a prime example of how it should be done. There's often a lot going on onstage, and off, but Goode directs his productions with careful attention to detail and brings your focus to just the right place at all times. Small technical problems notwithstanding, the melding of video and sound with the live performers is seamless, nowhere more so than in Burritt's extended monologues, which she performs seated interview-style before a camera on a table.

Her face is projected behind her on a screen and Goode seems to dare us, "Are you going to watch the real performer, or are you going to watch the ersatz projection?" Probably the projection will win out: you can see Burritt's every facial tic, and she runs through a wide array of them with a clarity and speed that is preternatural and therefore hilarious. The media personality fakeness to her posturing is underscored by the hilariously insincere avowal, "Know that I care." She could be any postfeminist starlet being interviewed on Larry King.

Burritt is mesmerizing and turns what could be an exceptionally annoying character into a fascinating one, which she can establish a character in less than one line, with a shrug of her shoulders.

Domestic strife, or lack thereof is the central issue of the next episode, in which a stoic Carlos (Felipe Barrueto-Cabello) stands frozen with a bowl of cereal for the consideration of his lover, Marit Brook-Kothlow, who halfheartedly runs through a list of things that she likes about him. A great deal of the appeal of the JGPG work is the specifics of text. Brook-Kothlow doesn't just like Carlos because he stays in touch with friends, they are friends from junior college. She doesn't just think he has good hands, he has good hands for basketball.

She breaks his stoicism, flinging his Cheerios across the floor, and they begin one of the duets that should leave little doubt of the dancing abilities of the performers. In a complex pas de deux that begins with an effortless and yet thrilling leap off the table into his hands they engage in a sexually charged and edgy tussle with clouds of dust coming off their moments of contact and blue paint smeared over both of them. After it's all over, and the lights go out, they are "discovered" again, back at the table, looking bored and passionless. Was it all a fantasy? Or did they simply lose interest suddenly?

The following vignette begins with Burritt's character asking solicitous questions of Marc Morozumi, prompting a recitative about his eczema. His panicked inner monologue contrasts with Burritt's desperate sympathy and brings out the feeling of itch, his skin itch, and the itch in his relationship with Tai, (Vong Phrommala). Tai is a domestic god, it seems, and the tension this evokes in his relationship with Morozumi smacks of typical male-female relationships. Tai brings in a succession of tea kettles and wants to stay home and watch TV, while Morozumi's character has the everlasting itch to cheat. "Isn't this what being a gay man is about?" he asks. Their duet has a contentious feeling to it, with daring floating lifts, and yet more of a consonance in their movements than even the first couple. A new old question is raised: Is gender identity performative or descriptive? That is, does calling someone feminine or masculine propose a certain characteristic behaviour, or express an assertion of what they are?

Burritt returns with an introduction to her chest. In what is simultaneously an overt reference to her sexuality, gender, and empathy, she reveals abruptly that she "can't be a domestic warrior." The push and pull of being caught up in the vision of what it is to be a woman has taken its toll. We're left to chew on this new twist while a parade of the characters executes a mesmerizing, trancelike choreographic episode, sometimes wielding odd tokens -- a feather duster, a plunger, a spatula -- as if they were symbols of domesticity.

As her character's inner motivations begin to fracture, Burritt moves the video camera to catch part of the projection on the screen behind and create a kind of video version of funhouse mirrors, repeating her image into the distance. She seems to descend into a psychosis as she brings on a shopping cart (also with video camera attached) and swings through an imaginary store to "Lara's Theme" from Dr. Zhivago, dispensing helpful advice such as, "Don't go near the lettuce! It's already bad!"

The finale is both dynamic and utterly under control making What the Body Knows, on the whole, one of JGPG's most satisfying works.

Premiering on this program is Mythic, Montana, which Bay Area audiences had a chance to see previewed last January at the Cowell Theater. It's evolved since then and become probably one of Goode's biggest productions to date. In addition to the seven core company members, eight chorus dancers join the JGPG in this evocation of themes and characters from ancient Greek mythology.

We are led aurally by sounds of sirens and voices over a bullhorn, into Mythic, Montana, where, as Goode says in the program notes, "ordinary people have extraordinary lives," and apparently disaster is around every corner. Goode himself emerges as the Sisyphus character with a classic plaid ear-flap hat and broom in hand. Like his Greek counterpart who rolls a stone endlessly up a hill only to have it roll back down, Goode's eternal task is to clean up the messes left by disasters, natural and love-related, in Mythic, which, it seems, has some similarities to Malibu, CA.

He introduces us to Psyche Amarillo Carboni, Marit Brook-Kothlow as a disaffected Goth teenager who is out of place in the rural Montana landscape. She informs us over the formal intonations of the chorus that she has changed her name to Zeero to symbolize the nothingness of her life.

In a twist on the Cupid and Psyche myth, Zeero is shot accidentally by a trio of Montana boys during target practice. Just the kind of boys that she hates. As she rises to the strains of Gustav Mahler's Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony, she has apparently been struck by the metaphorical "Cupid's arrow", and falls in love with "him" which seems to be one character played by three men. It is a little joke that she professes to have found that one special one, when there are in fact three of them.

The crusty, cynical Sisyphus returns to remind us that like a natural disaster, love leaves its own messes and disappointments. This is by way of introduction to the next scene, in which Amy Lou (Liz Burritt) embarks on a monologue about her adored adopted brother, Narcissus (Marc Morozumi). He is the gifted, beautiful one with great skin and we see eventually that she, ever in his shadow, is Echo, who in Greek mythology could be heard repeating a speaker's words, but, to her enduring frustration, remained invisible. In a sly syntactical segue, her slow, drawling Southern manner of repeating herself merges easily into a repetition of whatever Narcissus says.

With each story, more twigs, branches, bits of paper and so on are left behind. The stage is littered with the detritus of messy stories and lives and Sisyphus returns on the other side of the proscenium to address the audience in a closing declaration that we should clean this mess up. Then suddenly there is a flash to an absurd image of three nude bodies stacked on top of each other and Burritt at the top devouring a forkful of spaghetti. It seems non-sequitur, but in an instant establishes the primal drive of hunger, and relates it to the primal drive toward love.

Perhaps love and disaster are part of universal entropy, and we are driven to make chaotic messes in life and love, as much as we might want order. The final sequence seems to underscore this idea. Bodies are pushed and pulled in a beautiful abstract piece of choreography set to Edward Elgar's stately "Nimrod" from the Enigma Variations, and the overall effect is one of being buffeted by waves and swept by oceanic tides. Yes, anything is possible, even oceans of feeling in land-locked Montana.

Performances continue through June 8, 2002.

 

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Edited by Malcolm.


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