PORTRAIT (WITH HORSE AND OTHERS)
Conceived and Created by Collision Theory
Text and Lyrics by Patricia Eakins
Original Music by Jon Madof
At HERE Arts Center
145 6th Ave (Spring & Broome)
Collision Theory's PORTRAIT (WITH HORSE AND OTHERS) is very daring to put up an apocalyptic vision. The End of It All is not a lightweight topic.
PORTRAIT's vision, further, is of a peasant world--and what, dear Reader, does a "peasant world" mean to an affluent Western audience in the 21st century? One assumes that it is an impoverished and malnourished one. Not always, but often. It happens there, as perhaps only a North American audience has the luxury of thinking, not here. Geographically and timewise, not here.
Indeed, Collision Theory, as CT explains:
"the success of this “peasant” world is in creating a neo-futuristic peasant world. Where history is referenced but we can clearly identify that we are in the future. They have gone so far into the future that they’ve gone backward. It’s so far into the future that some of it is like the past."
PORTRAIT's world is war-torn and like it's spiritual predecessors--Brecht's Mother Courage and at least in the staging of one production I have seen of Waiting For Godot--hope is less in evidence than a kind of inbred, animal persistence. Grimly, human beings go on because they are programmed to do so.
We must have relief. Thus, counterpoised to this is vigorous and well-executed dance, the music of Jon Modof, threaded with the plaintive echoes of kletzmer here, eastern improvisations, jazz, and good old rock and roll. But though the music is thoughtful, attentive to the themes, though Matt La Von's saxophone brilliantly converses with the actors singing, it is not cathartic.
Time is quite literally running out, as expressed in sand pouring down through a hole in the set upstage--set as hourglass--and the closest hope comes to putting in an appearance (always rooted in the future) it is a prophecy vested in a child (Moira MacDonald). Mother/whore (K Tanzer) delivers MacDonald to Granny (Tsuyoshi Kondo), a Mother Courage figure who holds no illusions about the child:
" Open your mouth. Open! Ah, teeth. I hope your mother taught you to bite. Are you a boy? Have you got a spigot? (Old Woman claws at the front of child’s clothing, looks down.) Feh! A girl! You might as well kill yourself."
The child's only toys are Granny's husband's bones.
As the piece moves on, through the war zone(s), bodies are cleared, former beauties recalled. Lyrics and music grow fierce:
"Four starv’d foxes in a field of ash,
Three empty cradles cold on a hearth,
Two wingless grackles, thorns through their beaks.
Mercy breath blown on the suffering world.
Mercy breath blown on the suffering world.
Strong men blow up the suffering world
Books are burnt--is it censorship, or simply destroying the evidence?
“Burn tests and other evaluations performed under simulated battlefield conditions indicated that the health risks associated with the battlefield use of—“
The Librarian (K Tanzer) faces off the soldier (Jun Kim) who woodenly demands, as one might the sacrifice of 100 virgins in ancient times, books for food, fuel, dress… And yes, the Horse (Tsuyoshi Kondo) of the title, "prince of apples and carrots", talks. It and the soldier are in love.
Finally, the town gets hit, and this, THIS, is what it is like:
"This is like your soul is getting hit—all of you. The war is hitting your soul. The technology is so advanced that it attacks you in a more complex way than we are used to thinking of bombs, etc. It’s different kinds of warfare: psychological, spiritual combined with the physical."
Armageddon is bleak. The child brings dust, opened graves, and the visions are of what might have been. Only the prophecy holds out a faint promise, but not in this life:
"...our souls will fly up together, to the light."
To portray a world spiraling out of control within the humble confines of a black box performance area is, indeed, one of the hardest things I know to do. Balance is the challenge. Each element must behave, else chaos--and not the chaos demanded by its themes--will reign.
Seeing this piece in preview, I had my breath taken away by the text. Eakins' at times elliptical, very poetic language is another challenge to the performance; these words mean no fatootsing around. Period. Nothing less than a conscientious performance will do. In this regard, the work of Tsuyoshi Kondo, who plays both Granny and the Horse was outstanding. Kondo's physicality, as Granny, bore the weight of the world on those ancient shoulders and shed decades as the Horse. His concentration never faltered, nothing he did was superfluous.
Similarly, Moira MacDonald's Child was always the child, down to the last poignant moment when she walks away, suitcase spilling out a treasure of flowers, her absent mother's gifts.
Indeed, the physicality of the actors is what keeps us from being spirited away by the magic of the text. But it is much harder to balance live music (which can be overbearing just by dint of superior volume) and the actors' performance. I can't help but wish that the instruments were acoustic, though Modof's score was woven of the finest musical cloth.
This is work with depth, and well worth the trip downtown. (Fortunately, HERE's venue has a coffee and drinks spot right in the building, where you can stop. sit down and process what you've seen.) Do I recommend the it? By all means!
Staid Newjorquino that I am, I've spent two of the last 30 days being reintroduced to the world of contemporary art, in that reputedly vapid world of Chelsea Galleries. For one thing, it pays to go with someone in the biz.
AND I have a lovely cafe-acquaintance who is an abstract painter, another painter friend who is just getting back into it, a water colorist friend--we four have been visually feasting on paint--great brushfuls of the stuff laid on canvas with precise passion. The whole concept of not, I repeat, NOT, drawing but laying out a whole field of color and texture that is perhaps one thing close up and quite another as you reverse gears, back up, look from a distance... For one thing, looking more critically at what's up on those pristine white walls reaffirms the complexity, the subtlety of honest to god oil paints, as opposed to what I've always felt to be the kind of paint-by-numbers prefab colors of acrylic.
My fingers are itching--a sure sign that I have to dig out the art supplies!
Having been made hideously late by a bumbling bus driver, I offer this account of the beginning of an early morning ride:
"Hang spring cleaning!" was, I believe, the clarion call of Mole in Kenneth Graham's Wind in the Willows: for his troubles, he got a rowboat ride down the Water Rat's glittering, adventurous river. Mole's wreckless buddy, Toad, responded to the call of the open road in his motorcar, to his later detriment. Without wheels or rowboat, I, alas, am subject to the slings and arrows of what passes for a public transportation system in this country. One flits up and down the Northeast Corridor via that adolescent androgyne with wings (it is dressed in green) or one takes The Dog. Neither offer schedules that suit anyone; and both, I submit, are not only dawgs, they are the dregs of dogdom.
One need only visit their kennels, for starters. At 5 AM, 42nd Street's Port Authority is now secured by orange netting and pipe-like barriers that funnel you in through the only entrance that time of the morning, past someone who runs after you--"Miss, oh Miss/ Mr./Ma'am, can I see your identification, please?" A sufficiently withering gaze, a quizzical "who are you?" and the pit bull at the gate slinks away, no doubt to go off and lick himself.
You're in. The place is filthy, and most stands are closed, draped with an excess of canvas, except for a newstand manned by someone from the Subcontinent and, further on, some kind culinary arrangement that would make the lunchroom at Attica Correctional Facility look like the Hotel Pierre. No women, just a few fat white guys and several men in do-rags and baggy clothes. "Aren't there any places where you can get some food around here?" I ask a man with a tin badge on his chest. "Everything opens at 5:30--" he offers. My bus leaves at 5:45, I mutter. I walk along the darkened counters filled with uncomplicated carbohydrates, chips, and day-old deep fried chicken parts for cholesterol loading--someone still eats this way? This is food I cannot even contemplate! (Ah, yes, food to be thrown to the dawgs!)
I am rarely first in line, but the gateway where the bus was due to come in seemed the only place to go. A man--yes, a fat white guy--sits on top of a huge duffle bag, propped up against the tiled walls, snuffling atop a protruding belly, like a Daumier etching. He sneezes and blows his nose, reaches into a huge black suitcase beside him and pulls out a paper napkin. He proceeds to tear the napkin in half, sneeze, blow his nose. And so on. And so on--you get the picture. A rather nicely dressed woman--in her sixties I would guess--has flopped across her rollaway suitcase. Her head thrown back, she is clearly in some kind of Kafkaesque dreamland. She does not stir as we passengers assemble--should I wake her? (I desist, but, climbing aboard, and all along the early morning highways, I wonder if I should have.)
The dog stirs. It lurches out onto the road again.avapvfopuli [6:51 p. m.]