Magic Theater

"Body Familiar"

by Mary Ellen Hunt

January 19, 2003 -- Magic Theater, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco, CA

When you walk into the theater for a Joe Goode show, you’re just as likely to be confronted with a mesh of oozing intestines, up close and personal, as anything else. You shake your head and squeeze into a seat knowing already that whatever else it may be, “Body Familiar,” Goode’s latest collaboration with the Magic Theater, is going to be interesting.

Most Bay Area theater-goers know Goode as the eclectic, drawling, multi-media choreographer/founder of the Joe Goode Performance Group, a troupe of dancers who can act and sing as well. Three of his talented regular dancers, Liz Burritt, Marit Brooke-Kothlow and Felipe Barrueto-Cabello appear in this production. And from the side of talented actors who can dance and sing, they are joined by Liam Vincent, Mark Rafael Truitt and Celia Shuman.

Goode’s work tends toward episodic, character-driven portraits, and “Body Familiar” is no exception. All the characters are loosely intertwined with each other: Vincent plays Leonard, the gay artist whose preferred medium of the moment is intestines, the kind of work that brings to mind Charles Saatchi’s “Sensation” exhibit. Before the action of the play takes place, his friend Simone (Brook-Kothlow) has died under peculiar circumstances, although her ghost continues to haunt the others, most notably Bull (Truitt) her husband. Bull has remarried with the officious, overly pert Kitty, whose main enemy is the disaffected Katherine (Burritt), Bull’s sister and Vincent’s closest friend. To round everything off, Barrueto-Cabello plays the mysterious and idealized ex-lover of Vincent as well as a Latino fantasy lover for Kitty.

Now that we’ve gotten all of that straightened out, you’ll be happy to hear that you’re ahead of the game and can enjoy Act 1 in peace.

Goode has said that his interest is in uncovering the interior, the core of everyone’s human vulnerability. The concept is literalized here through Leonard’s intestinal installation, but the question is, are we as the audience delving deeply into ourselves as we enter into the internal worlds of these people?

The thing is, in “Body Familiar” stuff happens. Important stuff. Life-altering conflicts happen to all of the characters in the course of two hours. But in order for it to have an impact, first we have to really care, and it’s a little hard to care about any of these people. The portraits that the very skilled sextet of actors creates are finely drawn -- these are people you know: crazy, self-involved, unhappy, needy, questing individuals. Goode’s dialogue and choreography, as always, is at once witty and probing. Leonard and Katherine’s acerbic, posing assessment of a cocktail party, for instance, is a hilarious post-modernist joke. But somehow these neatly strung together parts never quite build to the point where the audience is required to question their own reactions to hope and loss, to the confusion that can exist between joy and grief.

Nevertheless, while “Body Familiar” may not be Goode’s strongest work to date, it’s way ahead of the pack in terms of expressing thought-provoking ideas on human stories through a kind of all-encompassing theatricality. As he said recently in an interview, he's intrigued by the idea that the woman at the supermarket checkout stand may be having a life altering experience which no one else is aware of. Utilizing his sense of what is absurd in normal everyday movement, he shows us these small moments, managing to capture both the alienation and the moments of intersection between the lives of the characters. Juxtaposed with his text, his hieratic motions show up both our pretensions as well as our unconscious thoughts. As Martha Graham once said, movement never lies.

In one of the most memorable scenes of the evening, the agile Brooke-Kothlow and Truitt dance an impassioned pas de deux in which his part is composed of nothing but the most mundane actions of reading a newspaper and studiously ignoring his “real” wife. Indeed, as Kitty natters on to her husband, she is unaware of Simone’s intrusion on his thoughts, that she is literally on his mind. In a wonderfully ambiguous moment, Kitty snaps at him, “You just want to do nothing and feel nothing!” But something is going on, and Bull is changing before our eyes.

Goode’s best works tend to be deeply personal, either to himself, or one of his actors. “What the Body Knows” was fiercely focused by Liz Burritt’s canny observations on the female condition and what gendering means to women. Ultimately “Body Familiar” could have benefited from that kind of driving force. Even so, in an era of remakes, revivals and rehashes of old stories, it’s refreshing to see honest-to-goodness new work, new ideas, and a creative force that is willing to run risks to remind us of the pleasure and pain of being human.

The program continues at the Magic Theater, Fort Mason, from January 28 -- February 2.

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