at the Blue Rider Theatre,
By Justin Hayford
Recently, over dinner, I asked my Famous American Novelist friend why he'd relocated to Europe. "I love America--but only at a distance," he pronounced, as though rehearsing dialogue for a comedy of manners. After a quiet moment of noodle slurping on his part and eye rolling on mine, he leaned across the table and admitted with a conspiratorial glint, "Being an expatriate sounded too sexy to pass up."
Exile and eroticism go together like New Year's and hangovers. Away from numbing familiarities the senses reawaken, discovering sublimity in circumstances most people wouldn't tolerate for five minutes back home. The mold-infested $11-a-night pension with tissue-thin walls and a bed that lists hard to port has an unmistakable Old World charm. The tasteless sponge that passes for bread in every Parisian sidewalk cafe becomes a gustatory sacrament. The greasy-haired waiter in the poorly tailored waistcoat is the man of your dreams.
To be in exile is to be in a state of perpetual longing--for comfort, for companionship, for family, for home. Johannes Birringer and his multinational AlienNation performance company attempt to explore the erotic ache of cultural isolation in their ongoing work in progress, recently seen at the Blue Rider, Lovers Fragments. While the piece is far from finished--and, more often than not, far from clear--its languid formality and ephemeral beauty produce a powerful melancholy. As one character says, suggesting the work's theme, leaving your country is much like leaving a lover.
Lovers Fragments began last January, when the group went into snowbound seclusion on a Wisconsin farm to explore their erotic fantasies (somebody in this crowd is a savvy grant writer). Perhaps invoking that experience, they drape the stage in layers of gauzy white fabric across which multiple filmed images--most of them unintelligible--shimmer. It's nearly impossible to get your bearings in this nebulous world, yet a few evocative images leap out in high relief. At one point a woman in a black dress dances through a series of sensual contortions to a cool bass accompaniment while above her looms footage of a dark-haired woman in a white dress drifting through the ruins of a decaying bedroom. This enticingly mysterious image, setting up a tension between two characters that's never resolved, is painted in clear, deliberate strokes.
The piece opens with a particularly arresting image: four people kneeling before a huge pile of white rice begin to sort through it meticulously, seemingly one grain at a time, as though searching for something. The earnestness of their search makes its futility all the more poignant. But the image falls apart when a man gathers up a handful of rice and passes it with an inexplicably reverent air to the woman next to him, giving her a long, meaningful look. What had been startlingly real--sifting through rice grain by grain--becomes a hollow show of forced artfulness. He offers her not a handful of rice but a handful of significance, yet nothing in the opening image suggests why plain white rice--which we've seen a stagehand dump onstage from an enormous Riceland bag before the show begins--should suddenly mean something to her. Or to him, for that matter.
This strategy--doing things significantly rather than doing significant things--is common not only in this piece but in much contemporary work. It's as if performers believe that by moving at half speed with faraway expressions they can make tying their shoes into art. Something real in a piece--for example, when a woman here tosses grains of rice onto the strings of an electric guitar, producing haunting music--only reveals the pretentious humorlessness of simulated significance.
The languorous pace of this 45-minute work gives the evening a hypnotic feel. But Birringer piles on so many visual and acoustic layers that his ambiguous world dissolves into mush. It's difficult for anything to come into focus when two trumpeters, a percussionist, a bass player, a keyboard player, two video projectors, a television monitor, 100 yards of white fabric, and a handful of aloof performers are competing for the audience's attention almost all the time. Lovers Fragments is "still undergoing constant changes," press materials reassure. Perhaps Birringer could give his audience more to see if he gave them less to look at.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mary Hanlon.