CAENIS at Pace Gallery

Photo by Hunter Canning

Photo by Hunter Canning

“If you sit in the first row,” you are told, upon entry to the Pace Gallery’s lobby in pursuit of picking up your ticket – which is actually not a ticket at all but instead a thin red pillow, wrapped in burlap – “there is a chance you will get slightly wet.”  The seating, once you can make it out in the haze of the interior gallery, is coliseum style, and you are advised to sit only in the first or third rows.  In the center playing area is a pool of water, surrounded by a floor of fine-grained sand.  Around the edges of the playing space, a performer runs past again and again, circling.  The music, ambient and cacophonous, rattles the wooden benches beneath you.  The audience crowds in, perhaps seventy in all.  The ensemble enters.  There is that intriguing tingle of ‘who the fuck knows what’s about to happen’ that you rarely experience in a more traditional theater setting.  Then the show begins.

The one running along the outskirts of the audience, circling until the seating is completed, is Caenis (which rhymes with anus, as one of the ensemble members helpfully clarifies).  Caenis, mythologically, is a Lapith maiden with a fairly brief story that can be found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  It’s not a particularly uplifting entry.  She is raped by Poseidon, who then feels bad about the act and asks her what he can do to make it up to her.  Caenis asks that she be made a man, so that she can never be raped again.  Poseidon complies, and also bestows upon her the power of impenetrability.  And so Caenis becomes Caeneus, sails with the Argonauts, defeats the centaur Latreus in battle, and is then punished by the rest of the centaurs, who bury him in a pile of stones and pine-tree trunks.  

You won’t necessarily gather this information from watching this performance, also called Caenis, which was conceived and directed by Lilleth Glimcher and plays at the Pace Gallery through March 19th.  There is a choral opening in which some of this detail is probably deciminated, but it is intentionally made unintelligible, the ensemble speaking all at once, the audience unable to make out much of what is said.  After that text-based opening, there is very little additional dialogue, and so one’s ability to track the events that unfold is largely reliant on the visual, the experiential, and the physical bodies in constant (often frenzied) movement.  

Occasionally impressive as spectacle, in its best moments Caenis reminded me of a Chuck Mee outtake (from Big Love, maybe), or a section of Dionysus in ‘69.  There is a madness and eroticism in the performances, and the proximity of the arena setting puts you within touching (and splashing) distance to the action.

The topical appeal to embody this particular myth (a woman who chooses to become a man in response to sexual violence) is clear, but the take-away is decidedly less so.  The cast’s reliance on physical and visual storytelling creates an ambiguity that suggests a take on gender fluidity and what it means in the context of the performance but never fully positions itself, and an exploration of agency in the work arrives all at once in the show’s abrupt (at least the evening I saw it) conclusion.  But the more striking sequences remain memorable – the event of the rape, rendered in the semi-abstract and involving many vases of water being violently emptied over Caenis (played with fearlessness by Lucy Kaminsky) as she writhes in the center of the pool, is cruel in the way that nature itself is cruel, unrelentless, the waves crashing down over and over again, grinding us down into tiny particles as we silently pray for our own transformation, whatever it may be.

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