Week one of REDCAT’s annual New Original Works Festival presented pieces by Poor Dog Group, Opera Povera, and Susan Simpson. REDCAT explains that their NOW fest is, “an artist-driven creative laboratory. Disciplines are challenged and blurred, traditions are re-imagined, and hybrid visions take hold.” Cindy Marie Jenkins’ interviews with the three shows made it clear that they are all works in progress. With this in mind, allow me to share thoughts about each of the pieces, and hopefully help you understand if you should catch one when it is presented in a more finished state in the future.
THE MURDER BALLAD is Poor Dog Group’s movement based exploration of Jelly Roll Morton’s 1938 recording. Jessica Emmanuel’s dance opens angry, repetitive, and edgy. It unfolds to repeated bits and pieces of the song, a classic New Orleans Blues. The production pushes hard to call attention to the lyric, going so far as to project them as supertitles above the designated ‘stage,’ a tarped off section of floor with a temporary cyclorama.
Emmanuel inhabits places of regret, loss, and sorrow. She cannot escape. There is no exit. Not physically, nor emotionally.
It is a strong, powerful piece unapologetic for its subject, nature, or rawness. Near its end, after joined by Jesse Saler, the two mug a forced smile and sway momentarily, challenging the audience to take in a difficult diatribe that reminds us violence is always near. Humans kill, rape, and cheat. Life is cheap. Flesh is bought and sold.
THE MURDER BALLAD is not an easy drink. It does continue Poor Dog Group’s tradition of trumpeting America’s faults, past, present, and future.
As opposed to the unnecessary supertitles, the cyc was used to project a birds eye view of the dance behind the performers. At times, a stunning effect, multiplying the audience’s views of the dance and even providing an angle unattainable without the technology. Water on stage is always fun, and director Jesse Bonnell was able to give the audience a feeling of heavy, inescapable wetness which only multiplies sorrows, and never gets one clean.
Opera Povera’s TO VALERIE SOLANAS AND MARILYN MONROE IN RECOGNITION OF THEIR DESPERATION is not for everyone. To begin with, it is a ‘sonic scape’ opera without words, built atop the Pauline Oliveros composition. And add to that enough gender politics and capital F Femminism to weaken Atlas’ knees, and you have a post-modern artwork aimed at a mere fraction of a percent of a random sampling of arts patrons. Some of the work barely makes it out of the gate, and the ‘sound scape’ style can be extremely problematic for listeners.
It does have its moments. All of the political baggage the artists infuse into the piece is leveled by a sense of boardwalk whimsy as each character on stage ‘becomes Marilyn’ in her iconic pose over the subway grate, ritualistically donning a gown and feeding coins into a ‘become a sex symbol’ machine that expels a timed gust of air the same way a coin op horsey ride at a grocery store temporarily blisses out a youngster.
Opera Povera explores the ways that men and women present themselves to and control the world around them. Is fame and attention pleasant or unwelcome, even hellish? Co-creator Sean Griffin seems to be asking if we lose this power after death, or if it grows stronger without the insecurities and vagaries of human existence. Does Marilyn, and for that matter, do all people, relish their power while detesting the tools and ways they gain and wield it? Co-creator Juliana Snapper shares her unbelievably gorgeous voice in certain moments so clearly that one wishes it could be more front and center throughout the piece.
EXHIBIT A by Susan Simpson is full of stellar live projected close ups of sets and other materials that offer up glimpses of space travel, alien planets, and our Silverlake reservoir and surrounding neighborhood. Her team of puppeteers manipulate members of Harry Hay’s International Bachelors Fraternal Order for Peace and Justice so wonderfully in a semi-Bunraku style that they eclipse any of the human performances on stage. All of the objects lovingly operated by the team including Julianna (JP) Parr of CraftNight! fame hold focus and fill the space, in sharp comparison with ‘human’ roles that interact with each other and the objects. Whereas most of the objects demand attention and stand out in sharp relief among the dark vastness of REDCAT’s black box, the people and their antics do not. They are swallowed whole by the immenseness of the space.
It seems clear that EXHIBIT A, and Simpson’s works in general, are usually workshopped and performed in a more intimate space, where these issues may not have been apparent, nor even relevant. Unfortunately, while the live video close ups create immersive effects and focused object work draw the audience into the world of the show, EXHIBIT A’s need to circle back to literally explore its source materials of pre-Stonewall LGBT activism is a massive anchor holding back a fantastical experience attempting to blast off to a far away planet.
Which brings us full circle. All three shows presented in WEEK 1 of REDCAT’s NOW Festival are currently focused on exposing the meaning of their source materials in such literal and unvarnished ways that they become didactic and confusing to an audience. Of the three, Poor Dog Group’s THE MURDER BALLAD feels closest to finished. Perhaps because it most effectively wrestled the massive REDCAT black box to the ground by creating its own mini stage within it.
Hopefully, the opportunity to present the pieces again might give these artists the ability to find sweet spots that respect the social and political imperatives driving their work, while keeping these themes from overwhelming the projects and audience. Additional time and resources to establish more permanent sets or better suited venues for each show are key to their continued successes.
REDCAT’s NEW ORIGINAL WORKS festival concludes this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, with performances by Emily Mast, Melanie Rios, and Heather Woodbury.