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The Enunciation (What the Oxen Said)

at Chicago Filmmakers, through June 24

In 1952--at the height of America's love affair with poetic realism, so comfortably ensconced behind its seemingly impregnable fourth wall--John Cage and Merce Cunningham created a theatrical mini-riot at North Carolina's Black Mountain College with an untitled event in the college dining hall that was pure orchestrated chaos. Cunningham danced through the aisles pursued by a dog. Robert Rauschenberg, then a student, played old records on a Victrola. Cage, in formal attire, read selections from Meister Eckehart's writings on music and Zen Buddhism and played a "composition with a radio." The event had no script or direction, but the performers did adhere to a prearranged "time bracketed" schedule of activity and silence. And just as the Stonewall riot encouraged a generation of gays and lesbians to rip the hinges off their closet doors, so the Black Mountain College event inspired a generation of American performance artists to eschew the careful packaging and manipulated pretense of conventional theater. The classically trained, sumptuously costumed actor pretending to be someone else, no matter how skillfully, was irrelevant beside the average Joe drinking a can of paint, nailing down keys on a piano, or kicking a guitar around the block. No matter what it was, it was real, and make-believe couldn't hold a candle to it.

More than 40 years later, American performance artists still seem convinced that "acting" onstage is reprehensible, but unlike many of their predecessors, they offer little to take its place. Instead they pen scripts that demand skillful acting--or at least skillful reading out loud--and then imagine that sloppy, uncommitted performances somehow bring those scripts to life. Too often an evening's worth of evocative text (it's rare to find an evocative visual image) is recited by a handful of self-conscious art students who can't seem to string two sentences together into a single thought. And--poof--performance art becomes indistinguishable from bad theater.

Robert Metrick's three-hour "musical drama" The Enunciation (What the Oxen Said) tragically typifies this trend. With the pace of a snail inching through superglue in February and performers who appear to be not only lost but indifferent, The Enunciation seems designed to enervate. Though Metrick's text is full of intriguing insights and exquisite images, precious few of them come to life in this performance, which he also directed.

Metrick seems most interested in grafting medieval yearnings for mystery and ecstasy onto a contemporary corporate mentality that insists on timetables and strategic analyses. The main narrative follows the wanderings of the "disenfranchised minstrel" Celantro Fortunato (played in alternating scenes by a man and a woman), formerly a mid-level marketing specialist at a Kafkaesque conglomerate known as the Kingdom. After consulting his personal alchemist, he discovers that the spot on earth that offers him the greatest potential for personal transformation lies "at the intersection of three oceans, with no land for 10,000 miles." Rather than head off on an important business trip, he decides to undertake a journey to this new watery home. Along the way he meets several allegorical figures: Labor, who expounds upon the virtues of hard work while plugging his new self-help book and videotape; Perseverance, who encourages him not to waver from his true path of hopeless gloom, singing "Don't let the flowers spoil the air"; and the Fates--who, true to form, can't decide what they want.

Metrick envisions a world where the allegorical and the pedestrian continually collide, with delightful quasi-surrealistic results. In a bucolic forest clearing, where one might expect a unicorn or wood nymph to frolic, Fortunato meets a paralegal from his office. Her parents met in a self-flagellating parade, she tells us in a dreamy voice-over, after realizing they were wearing identical hair shirts. A man who lives in a tower overlooking "the foam of the rearranged sea" finds a note on the refrigerator from a departed lover that says, "I am caught up in the mystery." Much of the humor and insight derive from Fortunato's ambiguous position. Is he a minstrel or a marketing strategist--and is there a difference? Is the medieval concept of the Rapture, the day when Christ returns to gather the saved and leave the rest of us behind in a hell on earth, so different from America's current system of economic stewardship, which elevates the interests of capital to dogma and pitches the interests of labor to the dogs?

But despite the beauty and sophistication of much of Metrick's text, he and his collaborators seem at a loss as to how to theatricalize it. His stage is cluttered with "installations" by local artists, none of which genuinely relates to any of the others or to the piece as a whole. Melissa Gaspar lights the stage with meager spills of unfocused light, making most scenes appear flat and often leaving lead actors in the dark. And Metrick routinely grants his performers only two options: aimless pacing or awkward standing. I'd rather watch someone drink paint.

More problematic, Metrick establishes a listless pace with sluggish--and wholly unnecessary--movielike credits at the beginning of the piece, a pace driven home in every scene and speech thereafter (even those that are recorded). Perhaps Metrick hopes to create a ritualistic cadence with this unrelenting slowness, but instead it drains all energy from the production within 20 minutes and essentially rules out anything of significance happening: at such a ponderous pace, everything appears uniformly pretentious rather than significant. With such a complicated text, momentum is critical; without it, cryptic details endlessly accumulate without ever forming any recognizable pattern.

Metrick's biggest problem, however, is his complete inability to engage his actors (a few of whom, it seemed, couldn't be successfully engaged even with a cattle prod). The 11 cast members appear to have just awakened from an unsatisfying nap--a scene in which two women struggle to stay awake is remarkably like all the others. Metrick actually accomplishes the heretofore impossible feat of making Jenny Magnus and Paul Tamney, two of Chicago's most versatile and captivating performers, look like beginners. In the play's final scene he even has Magnus, an accomplished vocalist, sing a 15-minute song consisting of only one note. This is like asking Picasso to paint his bathroom off-white.

But then any actor would sink to banality in this piece, because Metrick rarely allows any of them to respond honestly to anything. Instead, just as he leashes a poor arthritic dog to the stage during the first act for no discernible reason, he squelches every natural impulse in his actors, leaving them to recite his text as though they were reading a toaster-oven instruction manual. Metrick is clearly a gifted writer, but if The Enunciation is any indication of his directorial talents, he should stick to the page and stay off the stage.

Cage and Cunningham broke with tradition only after they'd mastered the fundamentals. But Metrick, like so many of his contemporaries on the Chicago performance scene, doesn't even seem to know what the fundamentals are, burying his actors and his audience under poorly orchestrated visual and aural clutter. Near the end of The Enunciation a character asks, "Why must it always take so much to convey so little to so few?" After a confused, arduous evening watching this piece, and after many years of watching similarly ill conceived performance work, I can't help but think that that question is in urgent need of an answer.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Black-Toby Photography.

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