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Goat Island

at the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ Gymnasium, through October 10

In this time of liquidation sales, of mass firings and closings, of people choosing whether to pay the rent or the electric and phone bills, there may well be a feeling of helplessness about the simplest things. And if we're all drowning, who's to provide help? And say there is somebody, how do we feel about being helped?

Goat Island's most recent work, It's Shifting, Hank, begins with the horrifying image of a man taking a deep breath and holding it until an attendant squeezes his chest, forcing the air out. Then the man sucks in another breath with a gasp and holds it till his face turns red. Such images multiply in this nonlinear piece, which weaves together text and movement, suggesting that breathing and not breathing are beyond our control: the four performers repeat the phrase "Tom bring the boat nearer" over and over like a machine-gun mantra until their breath runs out and they can't say it anymore. A man plunges his head into a basin of water and holds it there until another man pulls it out; yet even if he hadn't, the man's breathing was never under his own control--you can't kill yourself by holding your breath.

Compounding the feeling of helplessness is the ambiguous nature of the helpers. In this piece they're often dressed in white lab coats, and their motions are usually more efficient than tender. They delay helping for what seems the longest possible time, they wrap people tightly and confiningly in sheets, they examine children's heads for lice in motions at once erotic, gentle, and clinical. Ultimately being helped produces feelings of shame and humiliation--an idea that's reinforced in this piece by repeated images of people covering their genitals, being forced to face the wall, being hauled around on all fours by their belts like dogs dragged from one spot to another by their collars.

The classroom is a good place to contrast helplessness and authority, and in It's Shifting, Hank the teacher is none other than Ezra Pound (though there are also quotes from Blackboard Jungle and To Sir With Love). Students are governed by clanging school bells and shamed about their grammar, but most of all they're indoctrinated in Pound's anti-Semitism. But his arrogance and authoritarianism are perhaps themselves a response to helplessness; significantly, it's Goat Island's smallest member, Matthew Goulish, who plays Pound. The real Pound was eventually hospitalized for insanity, and Pound here asks whether he's to be punished or cured, tying the piece's "villain" to a running theme of illness.

In fact there are oodles of running themes in It's Shifting, Hank: the exchanging and transformation of bodily fluids; religious actions like kneeling and praying, and rituals involving liquids, like baptism and holy communion; medical exams (gyne examinations, eye tests) and procedures (mouth-to-mouth resuscitation); a macho kind of militarism, in which helplessness is both celebrated and destroyed. There are running movement themes: twitching fingers that recall the querulous motions of old people and the massaging, searching motions of medical technicians; open mouths asking for a kiss, for food, for breath, for death. This piece is stuffed, perhaps overstuffed, with ideas and images, yet they held together for me much better than in the Goat Island piece I saw two years ago, Can't Take Johnny to the Funeral, when the same methods left me cold. I don't know if the difference lies in me or in the piece; maybe I'm just getting used to the way Goat Island does things.

Their methods are in a way even more interesting than the ideas that pack It's Shifting, Hank, though they don't always work. Goat Island, which creates its pieces collaboratively under the direction of Lin Hixson, takes a fluid approach to character: no one performer is always the teacher, always the patient, always the celebrant or supplicant. There's no dialogue per se, though there are texts lifted from movies, radio broadcasts, poems, books. The music is an absurd mix of Mexican folk, postpunk rock, sappy tunes from the 50s, amateur recordings of amateur piano playing and singing. Costumes are often mysterious or patently artificial: button-down shirts with the left sleeves ripped off, white Styrofoam angel wings tied on with rope. Where most theater compresses real time, here the repetition of movements stretches it out. And when these ritualistic repetitions work, they give us a luxurious sense of having all the time in the world, of knowing exactly what comes next without knowing or maybe even caring why.

It's a shifting, dreamlike world Goat Island creates, a world without the usual theatrical signposts; as a result we end up relying for certainty on the unchanging physical presences of the performers. They're our bedrock, our constant. We learn to contrast the big but vague and soft brothers, Greg and Timothy McCain, with the ensemble's two smaller members, Goulish and Karen Christopher, whose thin lips and set jaws communicate a different kind of strength. We learn to appreciate different ways of spitting, from Timothy McCain's energetic gushes to Christopher's drawn-out, thoughtful streams to Greg McCain's short, efficient spurts. We mark the different ways Christopher and Goulish accomplish the task of crawling backward, over and over, on forearms and toes--the quick, neat way she lifts her feet to move, the swiveling of his hips and dragging motion of his boots--before they both collapse.

The heart of It's Shifting, Hank is a dance Greg McCain does that draws immeasurably on his physical appearance and way of moving: he's like some overgrown boy lost in the luxury of his own sensations. Holding one hand above his head and the other touching just above his pubic bone, he gyrates his hips and steps slowly in a circle, his head tilted back, eyes half closed. The others do this dance too, and it takes on a different character when the music changes; but no one else has Greg McCain's sweet childishness and abandon, which become more touching when he strips and does the dance naked. It's Shifting, Hank is far from perfect--it's too long, its repetitions sometimes dull rather than heighten our perceptions, and its obscure texts often come across as brittle or pretentious. But by God it does create a sense of community, as we learn the faces and bodies of its performers and of the audience members seated across from us in this old, battered church gymnasium. And what's theater for if not that?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eileen Ryan.

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