Joe Goode Performance
June 28, 2003 --
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA
For the first time
in my experience with the Joe Goode Performance Group, I had a real twinge.
I think I was offended.
At my liberal arts, politically alert, left-leaning, feminist college,
the joke was that everyone was always "offended." Affronts of every conceivable
sort could bring on an exchange that begins "I'm so offended by that,"
"Well, I'm offended that you're offended by that."
That hair-trigger sensitivity is something that I've long since relaxed,
but it must only lie dormant, because at the performance of Joe Goode's
"Folk," which the company premiered at the Yerba Buena Center in a two-week
run this month, I found myself muttering under my breath, "I think I'm..."
Then I immediately laughed to myself, because in this liberal-artsy, politically
alert, zealously sensitive town, watching the work of an intellectual,
plugged-in, left-leaning, gay artist made the very notion seem ridiculous.
And after all, I've always enjoyed JGPG's work, and I did ultimately enjoy
this season's offering. Goode is witty, sensitive, an astute observer
of humankind. But he's also provocative: he wants to make you think.
The structure of "Folk" is essentially the same as his recent "Mythic,
Montana" and "What the Body Knows." The tireless performers of the seven-member
company (two performance interns bring the cast of "Folk" to nine) sketch
out fragmentary narratives and portraits of loosely-related characters,
"sad sacks and rumpled insomniacs" as he puts it in one of his lengthy
All the JGPG favorites are here. Goode himself plays a drawling refugee
from the Los Angeles high life in the middle of a self-conscious nervous
breakdown, who has wandered into the decidedly rural landscape of the
California town of Tehachapi. Liz Burritt as Amber, a waitress in a local
diner, is priceless as usual, pulling faces, and moving with utter confidence
from the stage to the audience.
Marc Morozumi, with arguably the most unusual character, is a social outcast
and artist who makes Veronica's veil-like portraits of dead people, but
longs for "normal" life in desktop publishing, or maybe retail management.
True to his moniker, Morozumi's "Snake Boy" oozes with slow, dangerous-looking
releases through his upper back and twists of his spine.
In the midst of the ruminations, the quips and the touching reflections,
there is some evocative dancing and memorable images. Felipe Barrueto-Cabello,
as the shy romantic dishwasher Miguel, accompanied by the percussion of
three women on silverware, pie plate and a bell, creates an engaging solo
with a dishrag that expressed emotions from playful humor to the panic
of a little boy caught slacking. A transporting duet for Marit Brook-Kothlow
and Barrueto-Cabello is satisfying and fluid, consonant in a way that
is only possible for two partners who have worked together for years.
As always, one of Goode's strengths is his sense of visual composition.
During an exchange between Goode and Morozumi, giant tumbleweed, pinned
on a clothesline that cuts through the space diagonally, slowly march
up the line. A grouping of six dancers, working in pairs on the floor,
perform a structurally simple phrase of movement in canon and against
each other like a fugue.
It's all set in one of Goode's favorite locations: the hopelessly weird
landscape of Someplace in Middle America. Indeed, Goode's themes and characters
are often so American that I used to wonder how the JGPG could possibly
play his works on international tours. How would audiences respond to
works that portray such idiosyncratically American situations? But as
I watched "Folk" it became clear that it would probably be easy for audiences
to decode this piece. Most of the characters are stereotypes. The wacky
wise-cracking waitress, the self-involved, gay SoCal movie-man, the disaffected
The specificity of these Tehachapi characters though, is what initially
gave me pause. How would this dusty California desert town -- site of
the historic Tehachapi Railroad Loop, which amazed the engineering world,
even as it took the lives of countless Chinese workers -- feel about being
Goode's shorthand for rural America? Is Goode aware of that history? Is
he, in an almost inscrutably subtle way, commenting on that history by
casting Morozumi, the only Asian member of the company, as the social
pariah? Goode is a meticulous storyteller, I think to myself. He has surely
done his research, and if he mentioned the town's name, he must have a
reason. But then, out in the audience, how would anyone who hadn't studied
railroad history ever see that point? IS that part of his point? Maybe
it's not. The brain goes round and round in circles.
It's one of the reasons I like Goode's work, but it can be a frustration
as well. You feel stupid because you're not getting the point, and yet,
you are fully aware that there is a point. Probably a good one, if you
only had all the pieces so that you could put everything together.
Oddly, although its structure is less organized, a clearer sense of purpose
and direction emerges in "Transparent Body" which shared the program with
"Folk." Here, as in the previous piece, vignettes and characters are the
vehicles of discourse, only even more outrageous and self-aware than before.
Certainly there is less dancing per se, and more mugging going on in this
piece. Goode swaggers around as a bigoted truck driver, or cavorts in
the audience as a camp version of the Alpine heroine Heidi, consciously,
almost coyly, redrawing and crossing the lines between real and pretend
over and over again.
In some of the episodes, the dancers, doubling in some cases as musicians,
sing songs that have the impression of being faux-naive: simple chord
changes, minor-key, almost chanted lyrics. Think Suzanne Vega's "Luka."
I last saw this cabaret-style work at Goode's Shut Up and Dance program
at the Cowell Theater in 2001, and then my favorite quote was "The banal
truth is never as touching or entertaining as we would like it to be."
Given the vamping, ostentatious look of "Transparent Body," I had the
definite sense that he was out to be touching and entertaining with a
This time however, the quote that caught my attention came during one
of Goode's chatty, confidential monologues, which often sound like confessions
to a shrink. "Maybe in one's work, one is rewriting the script to one's
life, choosing the words and actions to make it seem more orderly and
Truth and reality, who do we want to be, who do we make ourselves into?
But speaking of truth, how can one really summarize and do justice to
the makeshift cabaret, the purple sequins, the Gothed-out backup troupe,
but also the touchingly real moments and multi-faceted questions that
he proposes? As with the best theater, it simply has to be seen, and if
you can take away something from it, then you're that much richer. If
you can't, well, you had a good laugh.
Offended or no, it's days later and I'm still thinking about the performance.
What more could you ask of any theatrical experience?
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