The Oxygen Jukebox
at Goodman Studio Theatre
December 17 and 18
When we report events, we make believe that lived experience can be reduced to discrete packets of information. Without this assumption, even something as "objective" as the evening newscast would become incoherent: once a certain number of questions have been answered--who, what, where, when, why, and how--we are satisfied that we understand what happened; our culture has evolved recognizable formulas to explicate experience. But even when the viewer has had all of these questions answered, he or she is in actuality no closer to the event itself.
Our culture's passion for information-once-removed-from-experience formed the foundation of a truly remarkable theater piece called The Beach, by the Chicago performance ensemble the Oxygen Jukebox. The Beach, composed and performed by Martha Lavey Greene, Debbie Saivetz, and Mary Zimmerman, operated on the premise that its audience was made up of media-saturated knowledge seekers. The piece presented a variety of cliched, stylized methods for transferring information--question and answer, documentarylike travelogue, personal anecdote, and even semaphore code--but without ever informing the audience about anything.
If the viewer learned something in one moment, in the next he or she was confronted by a contradictory bit of information. "We're in a luxurious office in Silicon Valley," said Greene, standing on a bit of scaffolding with a concrete wall behind her. The Beach presented a dreamlike array of nonrational juxtapositions--a woman taking a bath wearing a party dress and pumps, a woman collecting feathers while blindfolded, a woman reciting Georges Poulet while standing on two buckets full of books. Instead of information, the performers gave us these images, loaded with potential for association and illumination.
In this light, it seems most profitable to read The Beach as an elaborate dream. Indeed, the piece opened with the three women standing before microphones while a disembodied male voice cooed, "Good morning, Mrs. Wizard. Once you have satisfied us as to the state of your wisdom, you may return to your dreams, which are beyond all dreaming." The questions then asked, all of which sounded like everyone's worst nightmare of an exam, were answered with Motown lyrics or delightful non sequiturs, such as "there are many ways to enter another body." Regardless of what the women said--and the responses were entirely different in the two performances--the disembodied voice congratulated them, saying "that is correct," and allowed them to return to their dreaming.
Their dreams, which made up the remainder of the piece, were broken up into nine activities performed live, intercut with three filmed segments. But The Beach didn't even allow for a distinction as simple as live versus filmed performance, for during filmed sequences the women spoke in sync with their own images on-screen. The film wouldn't have made even minimal sense without the dialogue supplied live, yet the dialogue ultimately did little to explicate the filmed images. "We're in China in the tomb of the sleeping king," said a voice, while on the screen appeared only a candle burning in the dark. It is difficult if not impossible to say why a candle can stand in for a tomb. Yet in this performance such a choice seemed unquestionably right: as in dreams, The Beach presented images that resonated, that belonged together, yet not by virtue of any logical connection.
The Beach might well have been as egregiously artsy as it may sound had it not been articulated by three such intelligent, composed, and clever performers. All of the women possessed enormous grace and precision onstage, crafting some cleanly drawn stage images. One beautifully controlled section, "A Nice Meal," consisted of Saivetz eating an egg while Zimmerman and Greene played charades, Zimmerman gracefully dancing her gestures and Greene guessing each word in sign language. All the while we heard a brilliantly edited tape of the women's voices as they tried unsuccessfully to answer some unspoken question. While the scene seemed simple and almost effortless, it held together like a beautiful piece of music; the three actions complemented each other both structurally and aesthetically.
"A Nice Meal" was replete with attempted communication. One person spoke in sign language, the other by playing charades; how could they be sure they understood one another? How could I be sure I understood, since I don't know sign language? The Beach was full of such planned uncertainty; the audience could never be sure it was reading the piece "correctly." Some audience members seemed intolerant of the piece's unwillingness to explain itself. But I found this quality to be a mark of the work's maturity, allowing for the greatest number of interpretations rather than selecting and presenting a chosen few.
In fact, The Beach's utter indefinability was its most impressive characteristic. Throughout the performance, I kept asking myself, "How can I talk about this?" Certain elements of The Beach can be isolated--the exploration of dream images, for example, or demonstrations of failed communication, or images of femininity--but such reductions deny the piece its fullness and density. Like a dream, The Beach required an active interpreter. An audience member needed to confront the images of the piece and construct "meaning" for himself or herself. The final image of the piece, for example, in which two of the women made a large piece of blue fabric billow across the floor while the third hopped joyously over the waves dropping feathers from her hands, seemed to allude to Aphrodite, born of the foam of the Aegean Sea. Other audience members may have read that image differently and more accurately. The Beach, which was like nothing I'd seen in Chicago, never showed its hand; it refused to tell its deepest secrets. Never have I learned so much while being told so little.