Stop The Virgens at St. Ann’s Warehouse
I went to see Karen O.’s Stop The Virgens at St. Ann’s Warehouse with some trepidation. Friends of mine on the crew told me that the load-in had been a clusterfuck and that major design decisions were made last minute, on the fly. They said the show was kind a glorious mess – too much money, not enough focus or dramaturgy. I have to admit, I was expecting a train wreck. I’m relieved to say that this was not the case. If anything, Stop The Virgens is a fun and exciting, if flawed, early work from an artist who, should she choose to continue this field of exploration, has a lot to say and a lot of talent to share.
I’ll start with the good things – the music was really fantastic. I have only been a casual observer to the rise of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and while I’ve enjoyed what I’ve heard, I’m not by any means a knowledgeable fan. I guess I kind of aged out of the demographic. But the music for this show was delightful – a tuneful mix of post-punk rock-n-roll, sprawling operatic balladry and hip song craft. Karen O. is a great performer – welcoming, engaging, entertaining and emotive, and the chorus of “virgens” added depth and texture to the score. The video design was beautiful, the costumes were well-designed and the overall aesthetic of the experience was, in its own way, immersive and interesting. Yes, the entrance to the event was, I felt, derivative (walking through labyrinthine corridors with “virgens” spookily lurking behind curtains reminded me of Les Freres Corbusier’s Hell House, also at St. Ann’s) and the trope of a collection of young women in blonde wigs felt familiar, if not readily placed. But overall – and especially for this show’s target audience – the environment was moody and intriguing.
For the intended audience of rock fans, unfamiliar with the tropes of contemporary performance, this was a unique and different experience. For those of us who regularly see contemporary performance, new opera and experimental theater, it was familiar territory and from that perspective it raised some interesting questions, not least of which is why do people from other disciplines think that experimental contemporary performance – or New Opera – is somehow easy to create? Maybe that’s not fair, maybe “easy” isn’t the right terminology. What I’m trying to say is that contemporary performance and new opera are legitimate, complicated forms in their own right, and I wonder if the artists involved in this project considered its aesthetic context and precedents.
On the one hand, it was exciting to see a young artist from a mainstream discipline spread her wings into a new form. Karen O. is a rock singer and songwriter with a clear and compelling aesthetic sensibility. I applaud her courage in taking on a new challenge. From my perspective, having seen Robert Wilson, Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, David Byrne, Ridge Theater, etc. etc. etc. with their high profile, high-concept gigs at BAM, it was refreshing to see someone from a new generation venturing into this high art territory. I felt hopeful that a new generation of artists might be positioned to replace the old guard in merging contemporary music and art with performance. There have not been many artists of recent vintage who have managed to breach the walls of the high art castle and Karen O. seems to be leading the charge.
At the same time I was disappointed that the work itself fell so short of my expectations. There was no discernible narrative to speak of (not that I require narrative, but there was no suggestion that the lack of narrative was intended), the direction and choreography didn’t seem to rise to the level of the music. I found myself wishing that Karen O. had chosen better collaborators, and wondering what her process was in choosing her co-creators. The musicians were great and the band – including Money Mark and a host of others – rocked. They delivered a score that was dynamic, compelling, tuneful and dramatic. As I said the videos and the costumes were imaginative and entertaining. But the directing wasn’t very thoughtful and there was no unifying dramaturgical conceit that allowed the disparate creative elements to exist next to each other in a meaningful, resonant way.
I wonder why an artist known for her stylistic innovation and who is creating a work with a female-centered story would choose to work with such a straightforward, conventional playwright in the Mamet/Shepard vein as a director. I have no animosity to Adam Rapp personally, but I’ve never found his work to be particularly interesting or insightful, I’m kind of under the impression that he’s the “flavor of the month” in a long line of “dudes”, making plays for “dudes” – another straight white guy with a point to prove.
And I’m curious about the choice of Mariangela Lopez as choreographer. I’ve seen Mariangela’s work before and from my previous experience – and the last show of hers that I saw at Danspace – her style is theatrical in concept but not rigorous in execution. It seems like an odd choice for a project like this.
I would be curious to see what would happen if Karen O. worked with people who have a track record of developing and producing compelling, cutting-edge, contemporary performance. I imagine her working with directors such as Annie Dorsen, Jay Scheib, Daniel Fish, Lear DeBessonet, or even Diane Paulus or Alex Timbers or any of their contemporaries/proteges that are creating work in the space between popular and experimental theater. What if she worked with Faye Driscoll (who has done wonderful choreography for Young Jean Lee, among many others) or Sarah Michelson or Maria Hassabi or Luciana Achugar…I don’t know. There a lot of adventurous, cutting edge, contemporary choreographers. I’m not slagging Mariangela, I’m just saying that there are other choreographers who are pushing the form a little further, who are a little more rigorous.
And that’s where I return to this question about why people in different disciplines – visual art, popular music – think that making contemporary performance is easy? Once again, I wouldn’t presume to know what any artist is thinking, and I would hope that they don’t think it’s “easy”. But I think about visual art performance from folks like Shana Moulton who make a big splash doing performance in a visual art context but seem to consider choreography, dramaturgy, direction and presentational aesthetics as an afterthought.
If I started a band and didn’t know my influences or anything that came before me, I’d be laughed out of the room. If I were a visual artist who didn’t situate my work in the larger context of contemporary visual art, I wouldn’t be given the time of day. But it seems like artists are willing to make theater, or new opera, or contemporary performance, with inadequate knowledge of the history of the forms or the current talent pool and expect that it will be equally compelling.
If you want to make new opera or contemporary performance – and if you call your work an opera, then that is pretty clearly your goal – if you want to translate your work as a popular musician into a new field of endeavor, then it behooves you to do your research, to think about what you are trying to create and how it fits into a musical, theatrical and historical lineage. It behooves you to dream big, to imagine contextualizing your work in the tradition of the Grand Investigations with Big Ideas – learn what has preceded you, play off of it, and collaborate with people who are playing on the same level as you.
I’d be curious to know how this collaborative team was developed, what the dramaturgical and development process was and whether they felt that they achieved what they set out to do.
Like I said, I was excited to see a young artist like Karen O. stretch her wings, push her boundaries and take on an ambitious new project. The music – the part she knows best – was a big success, and I hope she does more. But I would be even more excited for her to take it really seriously, to collaborate with a dramaturg and sophisticated, knowledgeable practitioners who are already creating work in a contemporary context and who would be able to push her beyond the bounds of the known.