Photo by Eileen Meny

Photo by Eileen Meny

Call me a sap, but the idea that theatre can be a vehicle for magic enchants me whenever I’m watching a good play. That is, until the fight scene happens…

Where is that slap sound coming from?

Was that supposed to be a head-butt?

What’s with all the egregious grunting?

Is that blood made of chocolate sauce?

These are just a handful of the many questions that gnaw at my literalist brain whenever I watch fake violence in theatre, and I’m not alone. I recently attended a production of a classical play in which the climactic battle at the end looked so shockingly lame that it made the person sitting next to me literally LOL. Fights are among those real-life things that nearly always feel like a let-down when faked upon a stage. Sex, too. Crying, also, most of the time. This stuff is tough to simulate and more difficult/morbid to execute in a literal way. All theatre artists struggle to achieve such illusions.

So what’s the secret?

Jess Goldschmidt and James Rutherford—company M-34’s co-creators of SWEAT & TEARS, currently playing at JACK—are going head-to-head with this thorny question. SWEAT & TEARS shows us what happens when we toss the scripts, tune into our guts, lean into the art’s artifice, and get physical.

I should mention that Goldschmidt and Rutherford are dating and want you to know it.

They say their process of devising S&T was born from a spirit of humor mixed with intellectual quandary. Their work shimmers with intimacy and sustains a playful tone. The two had initially embarked to create separate pieces—one about men fighting, one about women crying—but later decided to present them side-by-side in a two-part, 80-minute performance without interval. They’ve wound up with something that is on the whole an energetic, thoughtful and ferociously glib critique of theatre’s idiosyncratic failure to literally reflect life.

The atmosphere of the space feels more akin to a boxing gym than a theatre from the moment you enter. The men warm up in athletic shorts and under armor with red tape wrapped around clenched fists. In SWEAT, the fourth wall is straightforwardly acknowledged and promptly dismissed at the top, albeit sometimes ignored later on to dangerous effect (if you plan to sit in the front row, you’d best watch your feet.)

In TEARS, the boxing ring transforms into a bedroom. The women wear flowing navy tops and pants, with deep pockets cut from oversized men’s jeans sewn around their waists: a tongue-in-cheek reminder that women’s pants are often made without pockets, whereas in the men’s section, pockets come standard. A chilled blend of movement and breath—quaking torsos, blank stares, jiggling feet—hits you like a welcome drink of ice water after the testosterone-boiling brawl of SWEAT. Better yet: never once do the crying women make reference to their relations with men. Hell yeah, Jess Goldschmidt; Alison Bechdel would be proud.

The friend I sat next to told me that the piece summoned in her an intense urge to exercise. I knew what she meant. Just to witness the athleticism of Ross Cowan, Casey Robinson, Jess Myers, and Jing Xu will make you acutely aware of the limits of your own physical ability. The raw energy of each ensemble member conjures an invisible alchemy of fury and grief. Their directors know the magic Secret.

The creators ask: what can sweat and tears—two anatomical, salt-and-water responses to “the difficult work of feeling” (their words)—elucidate about the perplexing nature of gender? How do the ways we perform rage and sadness in art reflect (and fail to reflect) the ways we perform masculine and feminine roles in life? In the midst of an historic moment when more and more people are beginning to openly recognize gender as a fluid, pluralistic concept, S&T points out just how weird and eerily un-PC it feels to think that female human bodies are specifically wired to produce tears en masse, just as male human bodies are to produce an excess of sweat.

Does the piece say anything new about masculinity or femininity per se? Not really. Nor does this seem to be its aim. If anything, both parts hammer home an antique worldview—that life is a war in which men are born to fight and women to mourn/repair damage—only to then shake this idea with such theatrical force as to dismantle its binary structure. SWEAT & TEARS gestures towards the space between the poles of Masculine and Feminine. Whether or not we should fight to permanently close this gap is a question it leaves up for debate.

The big questions I typically face when devising physical theatre are a) how to maintain a coherence of thought, and b) how to sustain the audience’s engagement with the spectacle. But Goldschmidt and Rutherford navigate the obstacles gracefully. The two-pronged performance turns the traditional format of a play inside out and leaves the seams exposed in a collage of vocal sounds, bodies, and physical contact. These materials along with some threads of text work together to form a cohesive dramatic language. Both prongs are powered by repetition, contrast, and an electric interplay of physicality and text. Virtually every moment feels crafted to forcefully thrust you into the next beat.

I did feel the spell wear off during certain transitions that I thought showed too much of the seams. The order of events in the first act (particularly surrounding the wrestling sequence) struck me as somewhat arbitrarily strung together. I sensed one or two unnecessary departures from the chopped-and-screwed fight scene that frames the first half, every minute of which was thoroughly compelling to watch. Something similar happened in the second half when Goldschmidt walked onstage to sing “Ave Maria.” Her voice was gorgeous, the moment itself strange and stunning, but her brief feature in the action felt out of place. Though even there I might argue that the lingering spirit of honesty and play justified the frayed edges.

As I said, call me a sap. But SWEAT & TEARS is a playful and prescient investigation of the difficult work of feeling that raises some mind-boggling questions about the nature of gender and theatre. The magic of S&T doesn’t depend on how well the actors fool us with fluids (god forbid). Just the opposite: the hyper-athletic clowns of this circus use physical comedy to debunk gender stereotypes surrounding two alchemical compounds of water and salt. And so we return to the mystical Secret To Acting.

Magic doesn’t exist. The strongest choice an actor can make always honors this. That’s it. That’s the secret.

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