Soul Leaves Her Body at HERE, Raoul at BAM and This Time Tomorrow

This weekend Culturebot saw three very different dance/physical theater pieces that included Peter Flaherty and Jennie MaryTai Liu’s Soul Leaves Her Body at HERE, Raoul at BAM, conceived and created by James Thiérrée, and Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone’s This Time Tomorrow at the Duryea Presbyterian Church in Prospect Heights.

James Thierree in Raoul

Raoul is an extravagantly imaginative surreal solo in which James Thiérrée plays the title character. He lives alone in a ramshackle castle that is besieged from the outside. The show opens with a Raoul doppelganger running onstage through the audience and launching a one-man assault on the fortress. He tries to climb it but to no avail. From the beginning Thiérrée’s skill as a physical performer is in evidence as he scales the structure and then falls backwards, in slow motion, from the heights of the wall and onto the floor.

Finally he shakes loose the front wall which falls to reveal Thiérrée sitting – how did he do that!? – reading a book and listening to music. Immediately elements conspire to shake him from his home. Raoul is the story of one man against the forces of nature, embodied in the house that trembles and quakes and outside forces such as a huge fish puppet, a gargantuan jellyfish, a robot/tin fish and, finally, a puppet elephant. Thiérrée’s talents as a physical comedian are considerable. He takes the simplest objects – a ladle, a picture frame – and plays with them to create funny, absurdist images. Every object in the house is his nemesis and confounds even the simplest efforts at control. Thiérrée will pick up an object and physically riff on it, becoming at times a horse, sometimes an ape, sometimes just a cosmic naif wrestling with forces unknown. He dances around the stage, testing the boundaries of his small castle as it falls apart, daring out into the wilds only to be forced back.

It is difficult to categorize Thiérrée’s surreal blend of physical theater, magic, acrobatics and music. Raoul is pure theatrical imagination at play. Thiérrée creates a world where anything can happen and frequently does. But the magic is not only confined to his talents as a performer – he uses every theatrical tool at his disposal, including harnesses and cranes that send him aloft like a Flying Clown. Not coincidentally, Thiérrée is Charlie Chaplin’s grandson, and his physical style is reminiscent of the Little Tramp. He updates the physical style with flourishes of popular movement – nods at popping and locking and moonwalking – without every being crass or commercialistic. Raoul is every bit the modern, existential clown, a man beset by challenges beyond his control, yet valiantly rising to meet them.

On the day I went – Sunday afternoon – there were a considerable number of young people in the theater. Raoul is the kind of physical comedy that plays just as well for young audiences as adults, you can appreciate it on the level of pure physical comedy and you can appreciate the ideas that animate the character’s dilemmas. Great stuff and well worth the trip.


Jennie MaryTai Liu in Soul Leaves Her Body

Saturday night took us to HERE Arts Center for Jennie MaryTai Liu and Peter Flaherty’s Soul Leaves Her Body which is a gentle, beautiful and touching multilayered hybrid dance/theater piece about love, loss and identity. The show begins with the presentation of a 13th Century Chinese folk tale about a girl who is promises to a young man in marriage. For some reason her mother opposes the marriage, even though it has been arranged, and the girl gets sick and dies. The characters in the play are performed by Leslie Cuyjet, Sean Donovan, Jennie MaryTai Liu, while the images of their characters in traditional Chinese garb are portrayed in a film that is projected onto moveable glass screens. The play is told as dance-theater and there are movement sequences interspersed with dialogue and film. The integration of the film effects is seamless and the live-film technique gives the work a dreamlike effect.

The second story is set in modern day Hong Kong and is told through a film. A young woman, Yan, is living with her sister and brother in a sampan after their mother dies and their uncles sells their apartment out from under them. The sister makes money through hustling at mah-jongg and they are soon in trouble with some gamblers that she has taken advantage of. On the run, Yan finds herself at her mother’s old apartment building where she encounters an old woman – at which point the filmed segment ends and we find ourselves back in the world of the dance/theater piece. The old woman shares her story of lost love and emotional abandonment with Yan, who shares her own stories.

The piece as a whole seems to be about the relationship between mothers and daughters, between our inherited histories and stories and how we carry them with us. The set, lighting and costumes are all wonderful. The piece has been in development for several years – co-creators Peter Flaherty and Jennie MaryTai Liu are HARP Artists -and they did a residency at EMPAC also. All the hard work and long development process shows onstage. This is a great example of the kind of hybrid work at HERE aspires to present on a regular basis, it is technologically impressive while being emotionally engaging and accessible.


this time tomorrow

On the other end of the technical spectrum was Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone’s new dance/theater piece This Time Tomorrow, which we saw Friday in the basement of the Duryea Presbyterian Church where they have been artists-in-residence. This Time Tomorrow is a simple piece with no technical tricks, no video, no expensive staging but a lot of heart and talent.

The evening started at the Blue Marble Ice Cream shop on Underhill Avenue in Prospect Heights, where we sipped complimentary hot chocolate and waited to be escorted across the street. We entered through a side door and walked through the chapel – which has this amazing mural on the ceiling – the whole church has a very 70’s vibe. Then we walked down to the basement which was almost iconic in its simplicity and familiarity. It looked like a quintessential church basement that could have been anywhere in America and I immediately thought of the generic American settings of Richard Maxwell’s plays. Silverstone and Browde did a nice job of framing the stage area in such as way that it was almost as if the audience was onstage looking into the rec room/basement, reversing the audience-performer relationship.

Because of the perspective, looking at the church basement, I was expecting This Time Tomorrow to be some kind of commentary on the setting, something that would ground the work in its environment and speak to some of the ideas that it automatically brings forth in the imagination – community, spirituality, values, education, home. I imagined that what might ensue would explore, perhaps, the situation of a small group of characters trapped in a small space, something akin to the work of Jo Stromgren – something darkly humorous and physically inventive.

What I experienced was something far more abstract, a dance/theater piece with no spoken dialogue that explored ideas of social discomfort and the inability to communicate or connect. At times it was an existential clown show in which the characters mugged and gamboled for each other and the audience, dancing in jerky unison, amusing each other with physical absurdities as they wait for something that will never arrive.

The piece was created by Browde and Silverstone in collaboration with the performers Paola di Tolla, Ben Beckley and Dan Cozzens. The show opens with di Tolla onstage striking a series of pained poses and expressions of discomfort. She is soon joined onstage by Beckley and Cozzens who engage with di Tolla in a variety of choreographed sequences which sees them exploring the space around them in a variety of ways. At one point di Tolla engages the audience in existential charades with no known answers – the audience shouts out clues but it is hopeless, she has no way to communicate and we have no way to engage. They drag folding tables around, they carry bookcases, they exit and enter in a line, they pop in and out of doors around the space. A phone rings, unanswered. A different phone rings. One of the actors exits and returns in Shakespearean garb. At one point the audience is encouraged to clap along with the performers and keep a beat which eventually turns into applause and the actors take a seat in the audience. And then they return to the stage to continue with the chaos.

The performers are all energetic and game – they run around with vim and ardor but without any clear motivation. At times it seemed like they were acting according to a set of rules unknown to the audience – that they were performing a series of actions that were predicated on some idea that was not conveyed to the rest of us.

The audience I saw it with laughed a lot but I wasn’t always sure I was in on the joke.

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