Mystical Bootcamp and Under the Roses | Review

Mystical Bootcamp cast, from left: Aurora Tabar, Sara Zalek, Charlie Malave and Bryan Saner

Mystical Bootcamp cast, from left: Aurora Tabar, Sara Zalek, Charlie Malave and Bryan Saner Photograph: Rachel Tredon

Feel how you will about Mystical Bootcamp and Under the Roses, two performances showing at Links Hall through April 1. They’re certainly not for everyone. But if you go at least acknowledge the bravery on display.

Especially since bravery, if you haven’t noticed, isn’t growing on trees. These shows are part of the LinkUp program at Links, which allows two artists or groups at a time to develop a piece with guidance from a mentor, for six months culminating in a weekend of shows. Neither the quartet behind Bootcamp nor the creator/performer of Under the Roses, Joshua Kent, rely on templates. Their works are experimental and require you to understand what that means and how to watch them. (I wish I didn’t have to be so prescriptive but, if you haven’t noticed, some people are upset that black actors were cast in The Hunger Games.)

Bootcamp is more or less what its notes describe: a “series of connected discoveries” that emerged from research begun last September, about “how individuals from the past have translated and transformed traumatic experiences” and how the performers might create their own “vocabulary of healing.” Kent’s notes for Roses are more subjective but do shed light on a challenging solo during which he cuts his left forearm until he bleeds.

Bootcamp has an overture-monologue delivered by Bryan Saner wearing bushy, false white eyebrows. He leans out of the theater’s sound booth like he’s the cuckoo bird in a clock. He asks in a halting, automatonic voice how many more times we expect to remember a significant afternoon from our childhood—five? How many more times before dying will we see a full moon rise, he asks—twenty? Saner then joins the three other actors (Charlie Malave, Aurora Tabar and Sara Zalek) in a composite routine of yoga and cheerleading moves, Trio A by Yvonne Rainer and 5BX, an aerobic and calisthenic regimen developed in the late ’50s for the Royal Canadian Air Force. They wear matching black tank tops, soccer shorts and lace-up boots. Their unison counting reaches 100 before the diversion begins.

A series of white-on-black titles play on the screen of a small TV/VCR at the beginning of Roses. The text asks us to imagine a black dress with a stiff, high collar before describing a horse being hanged and flayed. Six light bulbs on the ceiling glow dimly and then Kent, wearing the dress described, decorates the stage. A sequined glove is hung like mistletoe; a bouquet of flowers in brown paper is unwrapped and tied with ribbon to a microphone stand that lies on the floor. Lying prone, Kent tells the microphone a story about the sun and moon and the nature of light. He quotes Donald E. Carr by way of Annie Dillard’s Audience Study for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a bit about single-celled organisms and how “their sense impressions are not edited in the brain. ‘This is philosophically interesting in a rather mournful way, since it means that only the simplest animals perceive the universe as it is.’ ” Thanks to Carr’s thought and Kent’s delivery, the audience laughs.

There’s laughter again after Kent explains that his fey pose in a black jockstrap was inspired by a Rolling Stone cover featuring David Cassidy. He wonders aloud at what Cassidy feels while hanging on teenagers’ walls. “What’s it like to look and look and look and never turn away?” Later, as if to answer his own question, he recalls an awakening of his senses in a roadside restaurant, spurred by a sliver of sunlight on his arm. It’s a quite masterfully delivered aria of feeling reminiscent of Walt Whitman—bookended by the arm-cutting and a frantically accelerating solo dance performed nude. For every image of transcendence, Roses offers two of entrapment.

Once the Bootcamp team’s bootcamp routine comes to its end—Tabar, lying prone, slaps the floor repeatedly as she attempts something like the butterfly stroke out of water—the four actors are reintroduced one by one, each colorfully costumed and wearing an outrageous mask. Zalek, in green, spreads fragrant soil on a circular sheet of fabric and tells the story of a biodynamic farming workshop she attended at a tai chi instructor’s house. Saner edges onstage behind her in a dress, and a hard apron with a small model of a tree at one end. Its roots hang below. A large, bright yellow lightning bolt obscures Saner’s face. He tells a story and punches the tree in the trunk and he chokes it.

Tabar’s dress is vermilion and her mask has cacti antlers; there’s a black flower on her left hip. Malave’s butterfly-collared, three-piece suit is crimson. When he sits down, grabs his ankles and scoots toward us on his rear, the fake tongue that hangs between sharp white teeth on his raptor-coyote mask suggests autofellatio. The four gather for Krummholz poses and then around the circle of soil, bringing their voices into harmony by repeating long, steady notes.

LinkUp Residency Showcase: Mystical Bootcamp and Under the Roses, repeats March 31 at 8pm and April 1 at 7pm. Friday’s performance was sold out; book online or call ahead (773-281-0824).

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)