THE BRIDE WHO IS A STRANGER
at MoMing Dance & Arts Center
"The Bride Who Is a Stranger" approaches its subject (the AIDS crisis and how it affects interpersonal relations) so obscurely and indirectly that if the AIDS virus disappeared tomorrow, the piece would remain as resonant and relevant as ever. Paradoxically, this is both the show's greatest strength and its most profound weakness.
Anyone who goes to see it hoping for an easily accessible dramatic exploration of the AIDS crisis and its social ramifications will be sorely disappointed. The Bride Who Is a Stranger is not that kind of work. And it's clear that directors Justin Hayford and Audrey Heller never intended it to be.
Instead Hayford and Heller's plans were much more ambitious. In fact, the piece is packed so tightly with literal and symbolic meanings that it more closely resembles a dream than a bit of theater.
As in a dream, every element, every action, every event represents something else. Hence, the solemn young man handing out calling cards stands for, among other things, (1) the neo-Victorian formality of AIDS-era relationships, (2) the spread of the AIDS virus itself, and (3) the pathetic attempts of the terminally ill to find a meaningful way to say good-bye to those they love. Similarly, the bride who (finally) appears in the second act represents (1) a woman dying of the same disease that killed her lover, (2) a corpse being prepared for a funeral, and (3) the Angel of Death preparing to marry, which is to say carry away, her dying lover.
Constructed of a series of enigmatic scenes, the work does not so much tell a story as hint at any number of possible stories that one could construct from the relationships presented. Along the way we meet a number of characters--a likable, if a bit melancholy, young man; a pretty but very distracted young woman; an easily flustered dweeb of a research scientist--who carry out various odd performance-art-like rituals.
The young woman (Julie Brodie) places white dollhouse furniture into an aquarium filled with water. The young man (Mark Brodie) places one of his calling cards into the pocket of a pair of trousers that he hides away in a suitcase. The scientist delivers an appropriately boring lecture on his theory that emotions are transmitted by a process he calls HEAT (Human Emotion Agents Transmission). "The blues can be contagious," he quips humorlessly at the end of his slide presentation.
This same scientist (played with comic brilliance by Philip R. Smith) dominates the first act, conducting trial after trial of his absurd experiments, which only succeed in proving the dehumanizing stupidity of scientific research. In one experiment the scientist tries to describe a dancer's improvised dance as it's being created so accurately that a second dancer can imitate it exactly. In another experiment, the scientist creates his own version of Simon Says by forcing three subjects, a man and two women, to step up or down a small stepladder on command.
Eventually, when the subjects rebel against the numbing routine of the study--"Now step up the ladder; now step down the ladder; now step up the ladder; now step down the ladder"--the scientist draws the most unfounded and unscientific conclusions: "Small ladders cause fatigue in 50 percent of female subjects, 100 percent of male subjects."
The act ends with a symbolic illness--the young man suddenly finds his clothes are too big for him--followed by a symbolic death in which the young man is wrapped up completely in a huge shroudlike sheet. Then the young man walks off the stage, leaving behind yet another mysterious calling card, which another character interprets as meaning "nothing except I've gone away. Good-bye."
The young man never returns, and the second act focuses on his implied lover--the woman in white. In this act, the woman is forced through a number of brutal and humiliating rituals by three antagonists (Debra Nanni-Janes, Christine Nena, and Smith) who may or may not be members of the medical community. In the most intense sequence of the show, the woman is stripped of her clothing, poked, prodded, and examined, then left to stand pitifully before a blindingly bright lamp at the front of the stage.
Nothing that follows equals the power of this image, which manages to convey both the sad fact that the U.S. medical establishment has a knack for turning all its patients into victims, and the metaphysical truth that before death, we all stand naked. Even the final image of a gigantic 15-foot bride with glowing entrails pales by comparison.
Ultimately, The Bride Who Is a Stranger proves to be as obscure and baffling as any stranger's dream. And understandably so. The issues and questions that Hayford and Heller deal with--how to live, how to love, how to die in a time of plagues--are so broad, so personal, so highly charged, so fundamentally unanswerable, that no more conventional form could have contained them.
It is as if Hayford and Heller wanted to create a form that would mirror the all-too-finite human mind's natural propensity to try to count the uncountable and understand the unknowable. And in succeeding, they have created a work of art that will appeal to those who don't mind a lot of ambiguity, and will repel only those who have to know at every moment where a work is going and where it has been.