Sunday, August 23, 2009

Gemini CollisionWorks: "Sacrificial Offerings" and "George Bataille's Bathrobe"

Photos by Gemini CollisionWorks and David Finkelstein

Our ability to find new ways to use language may be inexhaustible, but that doesn't mean that we won't grow exhausted in the search for new, bold ways to experiment. All through August, Ian W. Hill has bravely turned the Brick into a command post for these alternarratives, and earlier this month, I touched on the effects of seeing Fassbinder's Blood on the Cat's Neck and Daniel McKleinfield's A Little Piece of the Sun, both of which struggled dramatically against the weight of their rigid structures. Ironically, it's a revival of Richard Foreman's George Bataille's Bathrobe, which begins in a literal prison and then enters the protagonist's fleshy cage, that is the most appealing, whereas it's Hill's free-wheeling, cerebral improvisation with David Finkelstein, Sacrificial Offerings, that doesn't seem to go anywhere.

George Bataille's Bathrobe
Richard Foreman may not be a household name, but it's not exactly Greek, either. And yet, his first play, George Bataille's Bathrobe (1983), reads like one of those ancient fragmented plays: there are no characters, no stage directions, just text. To Ian W. Hill, it must seem like a crossword puzzle in reverse: he's been given all the answers; his challenge is to make it all fit. It's an appropriate challenge, given Foreman's protagonist, Frank Norris (Bill Weeden), a man who isn't dead yet, but who is no longer shocked by anything, and therefore in need of "radical" help. But Norris's problem is Hill's solution: the former fears that he no longer has any power over himself, but this gives the latter free reign to take total control--starting with his choice to incorporate Foreman's deletions into the play. (From time to time, Norris, unsatisfied with a section of dialogue, will spin his finger in the air, and as the sound effect of a tape rewinding plays, the actors will move backward until they hit an earlier point in the script.)

The effect is meta-surrealism, set to the jazzy beat of the flapping Brundi twins (Patrice Miller and Kathryn Lawson). Don't ask what The Man from Another Planet (Timothy McCown Reynolds) is doing here, or why his utter normality gives off a whiff of Vonnegut. Don't think so much on whether or not Clara and Myra (Liza Wade Green and Sarah Malinda Engelke), two high society ladies, are any more real than the semi-sweet substance they carry around in boxes; after all, how often are we ever actually in control of our own reality? Delight instead in the few moments where all the cogs seem to line up: after all, Bataille attempted to construct his own form of matter--that is, reality--a form that would defy rationalism and run on experience.

As put by the Dandy Fop (Bob Laine), "Why not be everything at once?" Or, to look at it another of his ways, who says the dictionary doesn't have a story? That said, it's no wonder that things are so mad, with Norris being diagnosed one moment, and at the racetrack the next. The real wonder is that Hill has found ways to slide the pieces of the set (the white-plastic cage walls) around so smoothly that, at times, we actually follow him. ("Everybody can [understand]," says Norris, leading several of the actors in a dance.)

The text itself is a tougher nut to crack than the actual experience, and that's a credit to Hill's handiwork. It's also a credit to his attention to detail, because the idea of the experience was Bataille's point (twice filtered, through Foreman and now Hill). George Bataille's Bathrobe isn't a good play--but that's because it never tried to be one (there are moments, like an odd semi-funeral, where one wishes it had).

Sacrificial Offerings
Why did Beckett coin the term "dramaticule"? Was his goal to ridicule the literal meanings of drama, to abstract standard communication? Or is that just the thrust behind David Finkelstein's post-improv style, in which two actors purposefully avoid listening to the literal meaning behind their partner's words so that they can arrive at something more purely unconscious, something that he can then shape into a surreal film? The reason for all these questions is that one assumes there's something more behind Finkelstein's collaboration with Ian W. Hill, something more than just the effect of taking one of Finkelstein's films--Marvelous Discourse, which he improvised with Hill--and using its "script" and video as the backbone and centerpiece of a play, Sacrificial Offerings.

Perhaps there is, but I didn't see it. What they call "delicious" and "juicy" and potentially "adverserial" is, in execution, meandering and off-putting. I'm no fan of classics like Aeschylus, many of which are already fragmented, but the idea of taking these "old dead words" and somehow using them as "intellectual stuffing"... well, what's "smokier and richer" to one is unpalatable to another. More so, while this may have worked on a cerebral level as an exchange between two artists trying to find a new angle on the truth, the text is diffracted too far when redistributed between a bunch of party guests awaiting the visions of an oracle.

The play ends with a similar what's-the-point query: "What are we do to with the story, now that we have codified it." Their answer is that they should just leave it for others, and move on, and in truth, there is very little else that a "dramaticule" such as Sacrificial Offerings can achieve.

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