“Gardenia” from Les Ballet C de la B and Richard Maxwell’s “Neutral Hero”
A cabaret club is closing and, through farewell moments, the audience gets a fleeting look into the world of its transsexual and transvestite performers and spectators. The performance began with a request for the audience to observe a minute of silence for the closing of the cabaret. As one, the audience rose, accepting the offer to become part of the performance reality created by Alain Platel and Frank van Laecke in Gardenia – Gorgeous. Now closed at Montreal’s Festival Transámeriques.
Based in Belgium, Les Ballets C de la B has gained an international reputation for innovative work that deals with the body in contemporary society. Gardenia is full of continual physical transformation, between genders, between costumes, between laughing and crying.
The performance is so well-balanced that I can’t relegate it to one genre, style, or mood. It never sinks into cliché nor sentimentality, though it flirts with both. It is not text heavy, leaning towards movement as a discursive medium, but the text that it does have is beautifully written (and spans languages). It is relaxed but precise, allowing the aging bodies of the performers (many of whom came into the process with little or no performance experience) to be natural and truthful. The performers do not present characters, they present various sides of themselves. Into this mix is thrown the tension and precision of one young male dancer. A confused foil to the older men, this young man channels the pain and loneliness that is felt but almost never shown by the other men onstage.
It is easy for me to over-think any production but sometimes I see a show that just needs to be embraced. Gardenia is such a show. I thought it beautifully staged and lovingly performed. Moving but never maudlin. The kind of theatre that leaves me feeling inspired as a director – ready to go home and create.
Other times I find myself able to enjoy a performance because I can over-think it. Last night, after so much academic exposure to his work, I finally saw a Richard Maxwell production for the first time. Neutral Hero, from Richard Maxwell and the New York City Players, continues at Montreal’s Festival Transamériques tonight and tomorrow – June 5 and 6, 2011.
Starting at the end: it was fascinating to leave the theatre amidst the varied audience reactions. In curiosity I looked up other reviews this morning. And indeed, the first two reviews from last night’s performance, are polar opposite in understanding and opinion. In the program notes, Maxwell writes that the idea of neutrality onstage is both “irritating and provocative.” While the monotone delivery of the text is certainly grating, I started to feel that it was actually creating space for unusual subtleties. When every line is approached flatly, a small look and a gentle question mark are suddenly very touching. A slight waver and a moment of eye contact become more intensely emotional because they are so rare.
Overheard from a friend afterwards: “I understand that the delivery and immobility of the actors was a choice, but….” And here enters the question about over-thinking: To what extent should we have to understand the thought-process behind a choice? Did I enjoy the play because I had studied the artist first?
Maxwell’s poetry is far from banal (or “mind-numbing” as one of the reviews I read this morning put it), creating the rhythm and texture of the American landscape through detailed descriptions. The opening texts felt like a road trip through a ghost town and when we finally met the inhabitants they too were a little bit like ghosts – lost souls at least, each one moving through a personal abandonment. However, I felt that the text was too long to sustain the style. If you’re going in for the story, you might be disappointed – the story that emerges is fractured and incomplete. But the song! The piece is full of song; the voices are powerful in their simplicity and naivety. The moments of unison out of which rises a pure single line of harmony are utter magic.
More than one audience member walked out and I’m sure that others wanted to and did not. Granted, it was not an easy play to watch. Lights are on the audience through most of the performance, highlighting our discomfort. We have become so trained to expect perfect black boxes that disruption of that space is uncomfortable for many people. I love imperfect performance spaces so I enjoyed that such an environment was created inside one of the most standard Montreal theatres. A red gel fell off a light at one point during the performance and, had the light not been in plain view, I could have sworn that it was pre-planned.
Festival Transamériques, 5th Edition
May 26 – June 11, 2011
Montreal, Quebec, Canada