Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Gemini CollisionWorks: "Blood on the Cat's Neck" and "A Little Piece of the Sun"

Photos/Gemini CollisionWorks and Mark Veltman

Ian W. Hill has been a miracle-worker with The Brick's lighting, and this has led him to be a daring director, creative tricks lining his sleeves. He's got a strong voice, too, which helps him stand out in a crowd of actors. Last but not least, he's ambitious: his company, Gemini CollisionWorks, is staging four plays--in repertory--through August. His Achilles heel is in the incredibly difficulty of the plays he's selected: these are intellectual works, riddled with devices. Hill's ably assisted by his fiancee, Berit Johnson (the "crafts" to his "arts"), but he's bound by the repetitious rules of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Blood on the Cat's Neck and trapped by the jarring documentary tone in Daniel McKleinfeld's A Little Piece of the Sun. (The other plays include an original work from Hill, Sacrificial Offerings, and a Richard Foreman revival, George Bataille's Bathrobe.)

Blood on the Cat's Neck
To promote the explosive German auteur Fassbinder's play, also known as Marilyn Monroe vs. The Vampires, Hill jokingly quotes Lolcats: "I Can Has Fassbinder?" It's not such a stretch, though: Fassbinder's protagonist, the sexy, robotic, vampire alien Phoebe Zeitgeist (Gyda Arber, nicely managing to pull off all four "types"), has been sent to Earth "to write an eyewitness account of human democracy." If Lolcats has condensed deconstructed comedic language, then Blood on the Cat's Neck has done the same for the mannered dinner-party dramas popular in the early 1970s. You see, Zeitgeist understands words, but she doesn't have the reason that comes with "human language"; in the words of Immanuel Kant that are the punchline of this play, "Judgement and deduction or reason are in their formal sense only aspects of what is understood in that they appear as forms of abstract conceptual analysis."

Blood on the Cat's Neck is broken into three distinct phases: first, we are introduced to the archetypes, which include The Wife, the Model, the Lover, and the Teacher--nine in all. These early, short monologues, often spoken directly at Phoebe (though rarely to her), are the clearest part of the play, filled with the very real contradictions of the human condition. Ironically, many of these are about the silent language that Phoebe presents--the Butcher longs to communicate, not just to fuck; the Girl speaks of how repression is necessary to adapt to the present, in order to have freedom in the future; and the Mistress remarks on the secret enjoyment of submission. The Soldier considers raping Phoebe, but complains that "I need the girl to react so I can tell I'm doing it good"; in other words, he needs to communicate at least through body language.

From here, the play dissolves its characters in the ocean of humanity, and Phoebe moves about a party scene, listening in on two-person vignettes, each with an instantly recognizable dramatic moment, although no static characters. However, it does so in such a rigidly artificial way that the language ceases to have meaning; we are reduced to Phoebe's synthesized (a double definition, thanks to a voice modulator) observations, which are themselves the context-less repetitions of lines from each dialogue. (For example, "That's a fact. People change their minds. I am fatigued.")

In the third phase, Phoebe now interfaces with the party directly, throwing out the lines she had previously recorded (and in the exact same order they were spoken) in the midst of new conversation. Ironically, this leads to as many comic faux pas as it does to accidental revelations, oh, and about halfway through, Phoebe starts biting the necks of each guest, slowly turning them into zombies. The problem from the second phase persists, though: Fassbinder is more focused on ideas than he is on lives. The moments of humanity, oddly enough--though perhaps the point--come from Phoebe, particularly as she starts to assert herself. Here, democracy is a misunderstood joke, one that, while interesting, can sometimes be a chore to sit through.

A Little Piece of the Sun
Speaking of chores, Daniel McKleinfeld's historical mash-up A Little Piece of the Sun has one of the most demanding first acts (for actors and audience) ever staged. Even Jack O'Brien'd be hard-pressed to sum up this much Russian history (1924 to 1978) in the space of twenty place-setting minutes. Hill's get us off to a flying start with a surprise opening, but he's soon bogged down in dialogue that overlaps with voiced-over propaganda, a young boy's memories, and a chorus of roughly ten villagers, each trying to explain the effect of Lenin's death, Stalin's policies towards peasant farmers, and the rise of our two protagonists, Andrei Chikatilo (Tom Reid) and Grigori Medvedev (Hill).

But after those twenty minutes, the play gets our attention. "On December 21, 1978, Chernobyl Reactor...," stammers a nervous Dyatalov, is brought "on-line," whispers Medvedev. Suddenly, we know where this going. A few minutes later, we're slapped across the face by a fact we probably don't know: Chikatilo mentions, casually--and this is where the documentary style works--"It was December 22, 1978, the day after Stalin's 99th birthday. Her name was Lena Zakotnova, and she was nine years old," and as he'll soon explain, it was while he was stabbing her that he experienced his first ejaculation. McKleinfeld's research and writing pay off in the painful little parallels that he finds between these two, and Hill best supports this writing when he manages to avoid the sort of naturalistic blocking that makes it look like a classroom pageant recital.

The problem is that while Hill and Reid are gripping narrators (Hill on account of his voice, Reid because of his unassuming tonality and posture), a large chunk of the cast trips over the complicated cues and makes the play run much too sluggishly. Actors like Patrick Shearer, Adam Belvo, and Alyssa Simon all bring intensity to their lines in the chorus, but others (who probably know who they are) play their parts without opinion. Admittedly, the majority of the play is expressed as fact--the pronoun "I" is rarely used. Nonetheless, the actors are cast as named characters, and they suffer from a lack of specificity, a lack that makes Hill's direction look blocky or, at times, aimless.

At long last, the conclusion: both Blood on the Cat's Neck and A Little Piece of the Sun are filled with fascinating theories and facts, but the structure and presentation of these works often gets in the way of the storytelling. Then again, even when it's Gemini CollisionSometimesWorks, it's not every day you get the opportunity to delve into such unique and challenging voices.


George Hunka said...

One interesting observation -- the character name "Phoebe Zeitgeist" in Fassbinder's play is from a comic strip that Michael O'Donoghue (late, very late, of Saturday Night Live -- he was the dark, dangerous "Mr. Mike" -- and Scrooged) used to write for Grove Press's old Evergreen Review in the 1960s. Always nice to reference O'Donoghue; more about him here:

Aaron Riccio said...

Thanks for the note, George. I wasn't reading the name as much more than a play on "zeitgeist" itself (that is, she blankly observes what her name represents, which is just another dissonance of the language). Reading further into it, Phoebe is another name for Artemis, who was a Greek "moon goddess" who often appeared as a "virginal hunter," as she does here.

George Hunka said...

Both observations are appropriate. The character herself in the O'Donoghue strip was more or less a blank slate upon which the other characters wrote their desires. Anyway, thanks for the review -- I hope to get to it.