Saturday, January 12, 2008

Under the Radar: "Church" and "Poetics: A Ballet Brut"

- Church

Photo/Ryan Jensen

For the most part, Young Jean Lee's Church, a quiet exploration of the power of faith, avoids the pontification that she declaims early on as "masturbation rage." Instead of focusing on anything negative, she opens with a voice calling out from the darkness, then introduces us to four ordinary people, Reverends Jose (Brian Bickerstaff), Weena (Weena Pauly), Katie (Katie Workum), and Katy (Katy Pyle), who each deliver a sermon asking simply for our prayers to help them (and us) through the most understandable of troubles in our lives: the tendency to whine, for instance. The play then moves into a series of absurd testimonials which, because they are delivered straightly, without satire and with tenderness, give us a touchstone for why some people are able to believe, and why others are not.

In this case, surely no-one in the audience shares the circumstances of Weena's deliverance -- ten years of orgies, drug-use, abortions made into trophies on the wall, relaxation atop ten gushing feet of chicken blood, or the erstwhile tattooing of a swastika onto one's face -- her unabashed recollection speaks to some underlying grace. Likewise with Jose's attempts to sermonize -- it doesn't matter that his parables turn themselves, half-finished, into other parables, much like his hysterical references to "birds made of fish" or of demon mummies (including, but not restricted to, unicorns). Ultimately, the play concludes with two surges of music -- the first, a rapturous dance that, all smiles and energies, gives the sensation of beauteous freedom, and the second, a large choral rendition of "Ain't Got Time To Die" that reminds us that every voice has the power not only to sing, but to come together. I'm not a religious man, but Lee's Church gives me hope that there is something that unites us all, some inner inexpressible goodness, even if it's not religion itself.

- Poetics: A Ballet Brut

Photo/Peter Nigrini

They may not be from Oklahoma, but if Nature Theater of Oklahoma's recent works prove anything, it's that they understands nature: human nature. Just as No Dice exaggerated our casual conversations through the veil of dinner theater, Poetics takes our ordinary movements and filters them through a dream ballet. They dress like hip twentysomethings, all colorful sneakers, funny socks, and graphic Ts; and they act like us -- sipping on a soda, crossing their arms behind their head or placing their hands in their pockets, basically trying to find a way to idle comfortably on a narrow swath of space between the audience and a looming red curtain. And when these movements start coming together in sync, as "All By Myself" starts playing, they dance like us too, or like those of us who don't know how to dance would dance (or have danced: like children, unfettered by form, unrestricted by rules).

As the curtains part, the space changes -- growing from the backstage audience area to the stage itself and eventually the entire theater -- as does the dancing: though many of the gestures are repetitive, they way they look changes based on the song (from "You Should Be Dancing" to "Dancing Queen" to "Dream Weaver"). Sometimes ballet twirls are accomplished with the use of spinning office chairs with complex steps done by dancing fingers on the floor; the show is a combination of grace and sloppiness (as when they dance while eating pizza), and becomes a brute force approach to dance. Simple movements that, out of context, would not be dance, are now, through persistence and choreography, a part of a new vocabulary of motion.

At its heart, however, Poetics is -- like Church -- a reminder of the ties that bind us all. Music and dance are two other artistic forces whose effects cannot be easily described, but which have the power to make us all move. So get up off of that dance floor, kill me softly with that song, because we can dance if we want to, and you don't stop till you get it up.

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