CAN'T TAKE JOHNNY TO THE FUNERAL
at the Wellington Avenue Church
What makes a hunk of pink plastic a baby? I don't know, and if Can't Take Johnny to the Funeral is any indication, neither does Goat Island.
It's the essential riddle for any theater group. What makes an actor into a character? Another time and place into the here and now? What makes the stage the world?
In an attempt to transcend the mundane fact of sitting in rows and watching a patently artificial procedure, "realistic" theater has adopted certain conventions. Costumes, sets, props, and dialogue that approximate the everyday world are all intended to make us forget where we are. Plots are allowed to be somewhat artificial, but the presence of a plot is crucial to traditional theater.
Clearly Goat Island has eschewed these devices. More than that, it's come up with substitute approaches that are antitheatrical, at least as theater is usually defined. Goat Island's approach in Johnny is bifurcated into two unlike but similarly aggressive and startling methods. Artistic director Lin Hixson has given the four performers (Karen Christopher, Matthew Goulish, Greg McCain, and Timothy McCain) movement so repetitive and exhausting that there's no time or space for any kind of acting--or any pretense whatsoever. The intentionally graceless tasks absorb all the performers' energies. Meanwhile, the artificiality of whatever remains of traditional theater is heightened: bits of narrative, snatches of musical accompaniment, the occasional prop.
Johnny opens with an extended section of choreographed roughhousing. In the Wellington Avenue Church gymnasium, spectators were seated on risers on four sides of a 19-foot-square area, with lights pointed from all sides into the center, producing the effect of a boxing ring. The four performers, in mossy green shirts and black pants, line up and enter the ring, then proceed to jump rhythmically, tumble to the floor, toss each other around, hop on one foot, fall against each other, circle an arm or leg against the floor, walk on tiptoe, swipe the floor and clap, lie on top of each other, pivot and whirl into a full-length belly flop. Meanwhile they groan, grunt; their breath is forced out in big whooshes. They finish this section soaked in sweat.
Their movements recall no recognizable activities, with a few exceptions. Christopher performs a sequence that has the effect of a machine part being ratcheted around: she plants her feet wide, and holding one finger out and her arm horizontal, she repeatedly makes a cutting motion across her neck, gradually changing the torque of her upper body so that she seems to move slowly in a circle. In another sequence, the performers pair up and one of each pair lies on his back and groans and writhes rhythmically while the other hangs on for dear life to one of his thighs. I thought of wrestling, football tackles, a lawn mower that won't start. Or perhaps one person was in the throes of a nightmare, and the other was his succor or succubus.
For the second section the four put on green lab coats, like the flimsy overcoats of the poor or the bureaucratic uniforms of townspeople in a Kafka novel. Cheery square-dance music comes on (Ed Gilmore, "Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny Oh!"), but the performers' faces remain clouded over, deadpan. This movement is slower, quieter, more deliberate than in the first section. But it's similarly nonlinear; no development is apparent.
This style of movement and the intentions behind it are somewhat derivative. Chicago choreographers like Bob Eisen have been doing the same kind of stuff for years, and doing it better. And 20 years ago or more, Twyla Tharp and other choreographers in the Judson Church movement were giving untrained dancers repetitive pedestrian tasks to strip them of theatrical pretense. But a work like Tharp's The Fugue has a musical and formal structure that gives it direction and shape, and I don't find any such compelling force in the choreography for Johnny. Part of the problem for Hixson may have been the boxing-ring conceit, with its inherent limitations of space; there's simply no room for spatial texture.
But there's room for drama. In the second section Hixson adds the aforementioned pink plastic dolls; when earlier movements begin to reappear, the performers go through them clutching their "babies." It's quite affecting to see the same violent, strenuous motions made while they cradle the infants protectively. Later other sequences are repeated, but the babies are no longer protected. Greg McCain once again tosses Christopher across the floor; this time she's clutching three of the babies, but when she lands they go flying. They repeat with two babies, which also fly. Then with one, which Christopher hangs on to but only by swinging it wildly, banging its head on the floor. Timothy McCain points a finger at Goulish's forehead, and knocking McCain's arm away, Goulish flings to the ground the baby he's holding. The feeling is not so much of abuse as neglect: these people must go through their predetermined neurotic motions, and if the babies suffer, so be it.
The spoken text reinforces the theme of parent-child relations--though I didn't make many of these connections until the performance was over. The three performers who "confess" talk about fathers: one recalls how he refused to recognize his father, who arrived at the door in an unfamiliar form; one was urged by his father to become a murderer, perhaps of whatever or whoever frightens him; one watched her father being dismembered. All three say, "I was not an American." All three are implicitly afraid, and one asks explicitly: "What do we do with all of our fears?" Perhaps the text excerpted from the l952 film The War of the Worlds, based on H.G. Wells's story of a Martian invasion, provides an answer: what we learn to do with our fears is deny and bury them, covering them over with a matter-of-fact veneer. Invaders from outer space may be just over the next hill, but we talk about what we're going to do on Saturday night, about the quality of the fishing and the meal we had last. The boxing-ring setup cleverly includes the spectators in this conspiracy; like the performers we huddle in a rough circle, scared to look over our shoulders, back into the darkness.
But, it was only when Johnny was over that I was able to piece it together into some minimally cohesive form. (I still don't get what it means to be an American in Johnny.) And though piecing it together later did provide some intellectual satisfaction, at the time I was listening to the individual texts they had no emotional resonance. In fact in their brevity and apparent unrelatedness they seemed pretentious.
Like the texts, Goat Island's self-consciously artificial music and props created distance. The schmaltzy song "Teardrop," the loudly played Yardbirds ("For Your Love"), and the sacred music seemed to bear an ironic relationship to what was going on onstage. And the props! The dolls Goat Island chose are of a type so hyperreal, with lifelike folds at the neck and eyes half screwed shut, that they're grotesque. When it comes time to bandage up one of the performers, the other three haul out those little first-aid kits that look like toys, the kind you find in any well-stocked middle-class medicine chest. Goat Island carefully reveals the artifice behind its "dramatic" images, showing us how arrows can be affixed to bandages so that they seem to pierce the flesh. The most "intimate" and "confessional" texts are delivered into hand-held microphones, as if the performers were in some cheesy lounge. There's even a sequence that slows down the motions of stage combat so that we can see the curving of the hand around the face in a stage slap.
Perhaps, as with the exhausting movement, by pushing artifice to the point of absurdity Goat Island means to slough off the skin of conventional theatricality and uncover a new and fresher form of theater. All this is very theoretical of course--on my part certainly, on Goat Island's, perhaps. But that's just the problem. This intellectual guessing game continually leaves the audience one clue short. Despite the performers' energy and obvious commitment, despite the occasional moments of beauty, I was uninvolved. When it came time to dismember the babies, they remained stubborn bits of pink plastic; and the white stuff inside them, which should have been the stuff of nightmare, was Crisco or frosting or some other equally quotidian substance.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eileen Ryan.