at Remains Theatre, through June 26
Ann Carlson's Animals is an ardent, mysterious collection of five performance pieces addressing animals in themselves, their relationships to one another, and their relationships to humans. Carlson's always controlled performances yet contain an energy that's at once robust, ironic, and wise.
Her work is also at times provocative, a little edgy, a little unsure of where it's going because of the animals. One is never sure what they'll do, how they'll respond to Carlson, the other performers, the work's four "trainers," dressed in khaki, or the audience. This element of chance in an otherwise seamless setting is perhaps the factor that gives the work its greatest depth and richness. The animals provoke a flicker of vulnerability in Carlson--there's a little tentativeness when she holds the kitten during the final piece, "Visit Woman Move Story Cat Cat Cat," that gives this section the illusion of being "real." At the same time one wonders whether it's "Ann Carlson" gingerly holding the kitten or the gorilla she's imitating.
The lighting, by Tony Giovannetti, has been designed for depth and texture--yet lighthearted, fresh, almost sweet colors have been used. Amazingly, odd or "off" shadows are never cast--everyone is always perfectly lit for beauty. Even before the work opens--with the piece called "Scared Goats Faint"--one sees a little picket fence surrounding a square of brilliant green AstroTurf, upon which a pair of amazingly calm goats sit, serenely chewing their cuds and gazing at the audience; the back wall is lit in a glowing, electric blue. The piece begins with a choir coming out, lining up behind the back fence facing the audience, and chanting a strange "song": a cacophony of "infoglut" composed of Christmas carols, popular music, television commercials, nonsense poetry, and other bits and pieces of popular culture. An ASL interpreter (Stephanie Feyne) stands to one side and signs for the audience. Above the stage, two monitors duplicate the text being chanted.
A figure swathed in white (Clare Maxwell) emerges, looking like a shepherd or a saint in her jumpsuit, her face heavily shrouded in fabric. When she steps inside the pen her movements are a series of turns and lifts--almost as though she were talking to herself in dance. Nothing in her movements suggests she's playing to the audience, the chorus, or the goats. They keep approaching her to lick her hands or rub their heads against her body, but she ignores them. Finally she lies prone on the AstroTurf and the smaller goat approaches her, to the delight of the audience. Two trainers finally remove the goats by scooping them up and holding them to their chests. The goats' unaffected energy is what makes this piece so fascinating. By contrast the chorus seems terribly stylized, and the "shepherd" lost somewhere between the world of animals and the world of humans.
Carlson performs "The Dog Inside the Man Inside" with a beautiful weimaraner. Dressed mannishly in shorts, white socks, black shoes, and shirt and tie, she directs the dog with hand signals to sit, beg, lie down, roll over, and play dead. Meanwhile she speaks to members of the audience or absent friends and acquaintances, assumes some rather eccentric poses, and repeats movements. She says, "Dear Francis, I know I acted kind of odd when we were roommates . . ."; later she remarks, "I can't help wondering what I'm doing today that I'm going to cringe about tomorrow." Here the "man" seems a creature of habit and the dog somehow a creature of free will.
"Sarah" replicates the life of a whale in captivity and the inane narration at an oceanarium show. "Sorry, folks, I guess she's a little shy today. . . . That dorsal fin is six feet tall. . . . Will she give us a kiss today, folks?" Carlson wears a blue-sequined skin-tight sheath, black hose, and high-heeled shoes. On a column behind her two goldfish swim in a bowl. By contrast her movements seem huge, majestic, and slow--and in the context of her captivity they're poignant. She seems a great spirit in the body of a great creature. This particular piece was stately and sad, as she danced a slow "whale dance" first on her back with her feet (fins) straight up in the air, then standing, then diving and reemerging as the oceanarium narration continued.
The sections "Visit Woman Move Story Cat Cat Cat" and "Duck Baby" possess a deep mystery and respect for things unseen. "Visit Woman" explores the relationship between a gorilla (Carlson) and a kitten; the piece's inherent assumption is that the gorilla is capable of experiencing and communicating such complex emotions as anguish and love. Carlson hunkers down and swings, drags her arms, grooms herself, yet maintains her dancerly balance and centeredness. She gives these bits of business, copied so well from gorilla activities, a genuine animal grace.
"Duck Baby" seems to follow a pair of ducks (Eric Ford and Maxwell) in flight. Meanwhile Megan Kelly, a Down's Syndrome child, builds a "nest" in an inflatable wading pool with bits of paper she methodically tears. Through most of this piece one hears a tape of duck-call instructions--the subtext, of course, being that duck calls are learned by hunters to entrap and kill ducks. (How strange that one would learn all the subtleties of duck calls--signaling distress, happiness, food, etc--in order to hunt and kill.) Later Kelly dances alone, then with Ford and Maxwell in a sort of joyous three-way embrace: Ford sits with his legs spread out, Maxwell sits on his lap, and Kelly sits on her lap. Holding each other around the waist, they swing back, then forward, in great rocking motions. Kelly's face reveals joy and wonder--she's almost swooning.
Throughout this section Kelly's presence is so strong, and her concentration so intense, that in a sense she seems more "there" than the adults. The mystery is the great joy and love to be found in unexpected places (the girl's obvious amazement at the motions in which she's involved) and the intelligence in ordinary actions (her methodical tearing of paper). Over and over as I watched this I was reminded that there's often a lack of respect for the meek, humble, or obvious. The feeling here was movingly pure and lovely--and the audience's applause was passionate. When "Duck Baby" ended and Carlson walked out for her role in "Sarah," Kelly reached out to touch the sparkles on her glittering blue dress. It was a wonderful moment, and seemingly totally spontaneous.