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January theater festival reviews 2018, Part III

Written by
Helen Shaw

The January festivals are almost over; quiet has returned the Village. We’re in the twilight period now: Most of the big boys like Under the Radar have finished; the Euro-curators have headed back to Groningen and Paris. But a few offerings linger on. The Exponential Festival is still going hard, for instance, and Coil has short-run offerings into February. But while we’ve still got a few more shows to see, this will be our third and official dispatch.

The main surprise of the last weeks was how unified much of the work seemed. Despite a wild array of genres, the same two themes emerged again and again: 1) the mechanics of making art and 2) political resistance. At the American Realness fest (full of experimental dance, glitter-radicals, avant-queer aesthetics), at the Exponential Festival (full of plays and near-plays) and at the dance-theater work I saw at Coil, it seemed as though those issues were uppermost in almost everyone’s mind. The hand-wringing question that unites them—does art make anything better?—made these last weeks a kind of superstorm of creative self-doubt.

Several pieces in American Realness found material in the struggle of their own making. The droll Relational Stalinism started with an offer: If there were any curators in the audience, the performers announced, each of the scenes could be sold to museums separately. Choreographer Michael Portnoy alternated quite charming sequences with dancers—a series of “big entrances”—with complaints about the art world. (The way fine-arts folks goggle at things that would be “basic” in the theater particularly chafes him.) Neal Medlyn’s swoony I <3 Pina told a lush and romantic story. As a dancer does the choreography from Pina Bausch’s Café Müller and Medlyn gets a drink at the onstage bar, a projected text-scroll on the back wall relates Medlyn’s process. He namechecks curators. He acknowledges doubt. But once we start reading his account of an interview-slash-date with Siobhan Burke, a dance critic at the Times, the show turns from coy to lovely. The piece has a sweet nesting structure: The (married) Medlyn makes us fall for him by showing us how he fell for Siobhan, who is lovable for the way she spends her life falling for dance. It goes some way towards undoing all the troubling parts of Bausch, converting her man-takes-woman power erotics back into the innocence of a crush. The straight-talking Adrienne Truscott showed This, a rough-woven hour of anecdotes that still needs tightening, though she’s always wonderful company; Truscott is talking about the anxiety of making the work because, basically, it doesn’t seem done. The only piece I saw that excused itself from voicing making-of concerns was Séancers, Jaamil Olawale Kosoko’s opaque, abstract, textural work. Staggering up and down the aisle, draped in couture trash, Kosoko goes through paroxysms of grief over the many people he has lost. The work is completely private and as disturbing to watch as someone crying on the subway. When he welcomed us, Kosoko seemed thrilled it was almost over. “Last one!” he sighed, and drew a finger across his throat.

By a trick of fate and scheduling, I wound up at several relatively conventional plays at the usually wackadoo Exponential Festival. Kyoung H. Park directs his own Pillowtalk, an uneven two-hander about a faltering same-sex marriage, in which the couple grapples with confusion about what fulfillment should feel like. Park’s portrait of them is both sentimental (there’s a fantasy ballet) and lacerating. For example, one man complains about their neighborhood, but nails himself instead. “Everyone here now looks like my class at NYU!” Oof: Gentrifier, spruce up thyself. While Pillowtalk examines the world today and comes away furious and ambivalent, Free Free Free Free looks backward and comes up with answers of a sort. Haleh Roshan Stilwell’s historical drama shows us a fictionalized portrait of the real-life ‘60s activist troupe the Diggers, the utopian collective that tried to envision San Francisco as a postmoney world. (The show is immersive, which means we get free soup.) The piece emphasizes that, at least once upon a time, radical movements prioritized services: The Black Panthers ran schools; the Diggers did giant community feeds. As a play, Free is more valuable in intention than in execution. But the message—that you must materially help the people you fight forwas beyond price.

While I admired the sense of mission in both these plays, I was far happier at Bailey Williams, Derek Smith and Alex Rodabaugh’s Buffalo Bailey’s Ranch for Gay Horses, Troubled Teen Girls and Other: a 90 Minute Timeshare Presentation, a saddlebag full of foolishness about a ranch where city exiles can find peace, love and disco. Ninety minutes is a long time to have five lunatics (plus the DJ) romp around in jeggings and Western shirts, yet its insistence that everyone deserves refuge eventually breaks you down. At 70 minutes I was ready to buy; at 90, I was ready to dance. There is also some wonderful stuff in Adam R. Burnett’s Mac Wellman–esque comedy Holidays In/Coyote*, a super-odd playlet about a Kansas Holidome that reaches consciousness and begins to observe its denizens. Richard Thieriot is purely wonderful as an oilfield lobbyist giving a sweaty presentation about coyote eradication, and the play’s geologic time scale—a glacier slowly comes and carries the hotel complex away—strikes a interesting combined note of despair and non-anthropocentric hope.

And god, if only a glacier could have carried off Dean Moss’s Petra, one of the few Coil presentations this year. Choreographer Moss has adapted Fassbinder’s 1972 The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, a film about a self-involved artist falling in love with a model. The fad of using '70s film scripts has somehow not died yet; please, I beg you, leave Fassbinder and Pasolini and Cassavetes alone. Just as in the original, Petra (Kaneza Schaal) drapes herself over things and drawls her contempt for the world; this part is merely blank-eyed, tedious and annoying. But then dancers Mina Nishimura, Sari Nordman and Paz Tanjuaquio are asked to “tell a personal, painful story” as interscene material. Moss says he wants to investigate the sadism inherent in art-making, but he’s erased the line between investigation and the thing itself. It is cruel to the performers; the whole shebang is cruel to us. 

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