NORTH OF THE LAKE . . . ON THE SEVENTH DAY
at the World Tattoo Gallery
Doorika, a theater company recently relocated from New Orleans, has introduced an entirely new kind of theater to Chicago.
North of the Lake . . . on the Seventh Day is unlike anything I've seen or even imagined in performance, yet it is built out of wholly recognizable elements. Doorika has even designed its own theater space: the World Tattoo Gallery, an enormous empty loft in the South Loop. At one end of the room, two long orange curtains are hung on either side of several dozen chairs. The chairs face an old velvet curtain, behind which can be seen an illuminated painting of a blue sky. This installation is stunningly beautiful, with its rich colors in a room seemingly devoid of color. Walking into the gallery is like falling into a frame from a Technicolor film.
After carefully arranging the space according to accepted theatrical conventions (we assume the play will take place behind the curtain, since light emanates from there and we're all facing in that direction), Doorika starts the piece behind us. In fact, the piece doesn't precisely start. Rather, we come to realize that the noise we hear behind us is someone dancing, on the dimly lit far end of the room, perhaps 150 feet away. It's as if Doorika had placed a tiny traditional theater in the middle of a much larger "radical" theater. And the "givens" of traditional theater are suddenly exposed as arbitrary conventions. Audience and performance spaces seem to have been switched; the performer remains in the shadows while the audience sits awkwardly exposed.
Looking over our shoulders we can see the dancer (Brian Evans) slowly making his way toward us; he's finally revealed to be a sturdy black man in a colorful robe, performing what seems to be a kind of tribal dance. Once he arrives in front of us--where he "belongs"--lights come up to reveal a floor that's been whitewashed and spackled with multicolored paint. This "set" is hyperfake, with its obviously painted floor and unnaturally orange curtains. Spackling is normally used to add "texture" to theatrical designs, but it's supposed to disappear. Here the spackling is so obvious that it's entirely nonfunctional. The dancer looks pointedly out of place, as if on display. Clearly he does not belong here but in the shadows.
Then a woman (Lisa Perry) in a faded pink dress and wrapped in white gauze emerges from between the velvet curtains. She comes from nowhere onto a blank set, yet she carries with her the trappings of theatrical "meaning": she walks unsteadily in prosaic, low-heeled pumps, her arms languidly held at her sides, as if a certain pleasant exhaustion has overcome her. Her body language immediately reveals her to be a Decaying Southern Belle, here a character named Mums. As the dancer unwraps her, removing her from her chrysalis, bunches of dead flowers spill out of her hands.
With this brilliant opening moment, John Dooley and Erika Yeomans, primary creators of this work, not only introduce us to their unique theatrical language but instruct us in how to understand it. Here are two characters from two separate, specific theatrical realities presented within a frame that admits its own high artifice. What we have, then, are not the realistic characters we are accustomed to, or even caricatures, but rather essences. These are specific, accurately drawn, fully recognizable people who have no existence except in their appearance before us. In fact they are not people but images, clarified and distilled, replete with emotional resonance.
The show is constructed out of traditional dramatic scenes, though there's no remnant of a plot. The scenes never have beginnings or ends; they seem instead to be caught glimpses. Constructed like the characters, these scenes have been distilled to images. For example, a woman hurriedly traverses the stage, desperately urging a man behind her to pack everything up. But the man, with a blank expression on his face, pokes along, dragging behind him a little red wagon. That's the whole scene, and it shows a particular emotional state grounded in a slightly twisted reality. It is clear and yet endlessly ambiguous. It's as if every gesture remains entirely in the realm of metaphor.
This is the world of dreams, although to label it as such necessarily reduces the work's complex theatricality. Dooley and Yeomans give us the extreme clarity of dream logic: it doesn't matter why people do what they do, it only matters that they do what they do.
There is no possible explanation for the cascade of dead flowers, or for anything else. Most theater fundamentally examines human motivation, looking at why we do what we do in order to expose a kind of human truth. Dooley and Yeomans, on the other hand, seem to pose much grander questions: How do we decide what is true? What criteria do we use to differentiate truth from falsehood? And perhaps most important, whose truth are we talking about?
These questions are examined not only in the work's formal structure but in its content. North of the Lake is essentially about the construction of history, a theme that begins with the piece's second image: a young man sits on a white crate, surrounded by dead leaves that have been neatly sculpted around him. To see this image, one of the orange curtains--which up to this point has been a kind of wall, hiding what is presumably a backstage area--has to be pulled back, revealing a new playing area, an area entirely undefined in terms of traditional theatrical vocabulary. He is neither onstage nor offstage but seems sculpted into a magical space, 20 feet away and yet forever distant. He speaks calmly to an imaginary son, saying, "Your father is thinking of the end of his life." He encourages his son to accept the mantle of manhood, to carry on the family and "be willing to grow, but respect the ground you inherited on which to build your dreams." When the man has finished speaking, the dancer, now dressed in a white lab coat, gently touches him. He slides to the floor, his body remaining in the same position as if he were a mannequin, and suddenly he seems malevolent, insincere.
It is a complex scene, like every scene in this piece, one that seems innocent and even tender until the unexpected ending. As the evening progresses, we see many similar men, any one of whom could be that man. They are all charming, though complicit with a racist, sexist agenda: the drunken party guest who scoffs at any form of activism as a scam to stockpile tax dollars; the doctor who nonchalantly announces that "some sickly Christians have to be weeded out to strengthen the majority"; the small-time thug who laughs at the thought of forcing a woman to perform oral sex on a black man while he watches.
All these men simply ride the tide of history in all of its cruelty. The women, on the other hand, seem determined to fight against it. Mums lives in a constant state of nostalgia. History has rendered her useless, and only the glory of her youth--her own distorted history--gives her any comfort. Her daughter Iris (Debbie Shirley), on the other hand, is a radical activist, leading a revolution against an unnamed authoritarian power. Her heroism seems somehow doomed to failure, sadly laughable, as if the suave southern men in the rest of the piece could reduce her revolution to a charming parlor game.
History is a malevolent parlor game, this production seems to say, a metaphor suggested by the final scene, which takes place in a turn-of-the-century parlor. This scene, concerning a woman's soiled honor, is full of misogyny but is presented with utter formality. Though passions here are heroic in scale, the presentation subdues and even disguises the horror of the scene. It shows how we historicize our own experience as melodrama, in which atrocities, though commonplace, are grand and delightful.
North of the Lake, for all its radical innovation, cleverly examines its own relationship to history. The evils of history are also the evils of theater. They are both arbitrary human constructs whose conventions remain hidden from everyone except those who run the show. They are both tools by which objective reality, if there is such a thing, can be mediated to forward particular agendas or to agree with particular received ideas. Theater becomes propaganda, and history a weapon in the hands of those who not only convince others that they are simply reflecting an objective reality but believe it themselves.
The image of the father sitting on the crate, passing on his life to his son, pervades the entire evening. North of the Lake seems to ask, "What are we passing on to the next generation?" The recitation of an actual speech by David Duke makes the answer to this question almost unthinkable.
These artists assemble a sobering, honest picture. At the same time, the piece is exhilarating and empowering, for these artists have revised their own theatrical history, realizing that there are no givens in theater as there are none in history. They have invented their own conventions, or reinvented old ones, creating a work of utter immediacy. Doorika expresses what it feels like to be alive right now.
All of the performers--the cast also includes Dooley, Robbie Hungerford, and Kelly Anchors--are entirely at home in this work. Each clearly understands the piece and how he or she fits into it. This is a remarkable achievement considering the new ground these artists are breaking. North of the Lake takes on an enormous agenda--both formally and thematically--and makes it accessible in all of its intricacies. It's a confident production, one that speaks clearly and intelligently, though in a language we've never heard before. Yet somehow the language is familiar. It's as if this kind of theater has been waiting for someone to discover it, in order that we might see a little farther.