Big Dance Theater and Sibyl Kempson’s “Ich, Kurbisgeist” at the Chocolate Factory
Five shape-shifting pumpkin farmers, somewhere on the Bosch-Bruegel spectrum, declaim abstract text(ure)s until they meet manmade ecological apocalypse in the phantasmagoria of Big Dance Theater and Sibyl Kempson’s Ich Kurbisgeist (I, Pumpkin Ghost), which opened in the Chocolate Factory’s basement last week. The work reminds us, in the twee-creepy terms of its “invented language”, that climate change and text-oriented theatergoing are going to get a lot worse.
Tymberly Canale, as Tymbl Gurl (our protagonist), harvests pumpkins, is hexed with an environmental conscience, warped between “tyme slots”, married to a priest, and eventually transformed into a princess and then a crow. Maybe. Eric Dyer (Erc), Molly Hickok (Møll), Paul Lazar (Pøll), and Kourtney Rutherford (Koetne) play “ooldstres” who “mumber” grotesque folklore in rapt/vacant monologue, go on pumpkin benders, calmly dance to metal, and change into bears, puritans, and “writches”.
On Kempson’s fluid orthography, which pastiches West Germanic linguistic tendencies into a Game of Thrones/European touring circuit –drag: the is “dde”; pissed is “pussed”; people is “ppl”; th’ t’ ‘r wr’ ø, é, â, “wuh-wuh”, “etc”. The word “it” is alternately “it” and “ut,” sometimes within the same line. The eye dialect clarifies and obscures itself with an impish mercuriality, unfixing received meanings along with normative relations to dramatic text. We feel like children. Despite language’s inadequacy, fluency remains traumatic. Leaving no room for doubt, it becomes so immediate it hurts. Kempson’s text opens up a space for lingering, unknowing, and feeling. It puts meanings on delay, sometimes indefinitely. Hermeneutic collapse and reinvention is central when, for instance, Tymbl hears a pumpkin scream and, trying to contextualize the sound, starts “snyffing”.
If words are weird and kind of neo-medieval here so are things. People clutch them as if they might offer some hidden utility or comfort but what/how? A feudal-esque at-home rests “on the boards” atop a mass of obsolete technology including Big Dance Theater VHS, toy keyboards, and touch-tone phones. Where Rogers’ Hot Box partitioned us into semi-private booths of vague and steamy high-stakes close-ups, this staging is more open, such that in seating ourselves, We, Audience, must creep past stalks of corn wrapped in caution tape, ‘round clumps of locally-sourced pumpkins (grown on Governor’s Island by designer Joanne Howard!) and immerse in a plot of 30 swivel chairs beset by an interstitial performance zone on one side and tech booth on th’other. The latter, a many-monitored edifice presided o’er by a leafy Brendan Regimbal and the former, including act-able bench, lamp in the style of a surge protector, and spooky portraiture of sheep-like people complete our arena-theater-in-reverse. Also there is a cardboard cutout Witch On A Broomstick affixed by a MOMA nametag on a column in front of me.
Visual artist Suzanne Bocanegra designed the costumes which flaunt price tags and assemble clogs, aprons, girl scout vests, oversize glasses, antler chest protectors, ragged stockings, skunk neckwear, plastic grapes, mitres made of Jesus holograms and rugby caps, hats made of kindling, and multi-purposed baby/doll clothes. The male-bodied tie cloth around their heads like toothache victims.
The environmental mise-en-scene positions us as fake ethnographers among these speakers of the youngest mother tongue on earth, witnessing their ecological irresponsibility (our own), here vis-à-vis Pumpkins. The seeds are everywhere. Eric puts them through a meat grinder, Molly throws them at a wall, and they expand atmospherically (reminiscing of Katrin Brack). This play sprouted, according to Kempson’s program note, from beholding the residual gore of a pumpkin patch after harvest. Wearing a doll on her head, Kourtney Rutherford as the “Traveulun Writche”, speaks into a backpack mic that distorts her voice, further obfuscating her already heavily elided and abbreviated lines, amplifying the performer and obscuring the text, which comes in sextuple question-marked mawkish hyperbole, “in anorthren tyme thot is also our owne moderne future tyme, a terrble spirit comes borne of a rage at too many kuerbissen bein hollowed out an smashed in der Sonne – vengeance of the earth.” If exposition happens and no one can hear it, is it still there? At the time, I could barely understand any of this plotting, which reads very sarcastic, especially with the pumpkins’ screams sounding like dog toys. But the actors felt very present.
However cynical, the drama responds to silence on climate change. Interrupting Linus’s Beckettian anticipation, a spectral man in the “mo-on” is eventually projected onto the walls of the basement as deus-ex-montage. Kempson mentions in her program note that the harvested pumpkin seed oil was said to promote prostate health. With this knowledge, might we read the Kurbisgeist’s action as a critique of Western investment in rehabilitating male virility (with its implicit privileging of white hetero-patriarchal capitalist futurity)?
Formally, the performances exhibited an intriguing calm in the representation of catastrophe. Perhaps crisis was delegated to particular design elements (flashing lights, blowing bags, and loud sounds) leaving actors free to “relax” their acting and offering viewers conflicting energetic entry points or truth claims to negotiate. Maybe someone should have a discussion about the playful and the tragic.
A play “in code” is really two plays. There is the play itself and then, through the audience’s interpretive failure, another play, emerging in an abstract and seductive perceptual moment. Is this the “real” of theater? Kempson’s brogue and the expressionistic staging (Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar) combine to produce a series of multi-legible gestures. The text releases as a kind of abstract and associative noise structure providing the performers fuel to animate and the audience space to dream. The phenomenal quality of the presented speech overwhelms its manifest content and directs our attention towards the visceral materiality of vocalization. Actors become auratic nodes of presence liberated from the reductive burden of semiotic transmission (Rutherford especially with the added layer of her mic’d distortion). Translatability always flirts with us, however, lurking below the surface of the abstraction that bars our access to a prefabricated symbolic.
The ending functions as a failed performative and felicitous reversal. We are told to open the “Do Not Open” scrolls, which have been on our seats the whole time, and read “our most irrevocable curses.” The lights rise on the now response-able audience and dim everywhere else as the actors settle in the dark to watch us perform for them. Entering as if in response to the sonic playfulness preceding it, the choral voice flattens the expressive nuance of individual intonation with its monolithic affect, pushing people out of the way of text. We self-administer this poem like a shot. As an indecisive prayer or escape act, the sardonic litany aims demands, curses, and wishes at our own temporary interpretive community. Kempson’s stream of consciousness for an audience concludes helplessly, irreverently: “All of the treasured things is totally ruined / Our own closing remarks have defiled us / The End.”
Ich, Kurbisgeist is sold out but there is a wait-list at the door.
Weds-Fri 8pm / Sat 8pm &10pm
(Adtnl show tomorrow Fri 11.2 @ 10pm)
Through Nov 11th, at The Chocolate Factory.