Tranquility Disrupted – Sean Donovan’s CABIN

Photo by Maria Baranova

During grad school, I once participated in a writing exercise called a ‘shake and bake’ structure workshop. We were given five different choices, with the structures being described in prose form. I choose to tackle, “A tranquil place which is disrupted by violent forces.” Later on in the workshop, it was revealed where these structures had been borrowed from (mine was from a Shakespearean tragedy), part of the lesson being to not pre-judge a structure as something you would aesthetically reject out of hand without actually trying to accomplish it. The second part of the assignment was to go home and write the entire play overnight. (I failed at that part.)

While watching Sean Donovan’s new dance theater work Cabin at the Bushwick Starr (it runs until June 8th), I found myself contemplating that prompt (a tranquil place disrupted) with regard to Donovan’s construction and execution. The work presents itself in four distinct sections, some of which overlap. The first act is a manic sex-tinged dance party between two men, replete with a drag performance of Liza Minnelli’s I Gotcha that threatens to bring the house (or cabin, as it were) down. It’s framed as non-formal dancing, just improv in the living room of an isolated cabin somewhere upstate in the summertime. Which is also to say, it doesn’t read as dance so much as behavior, and so we watch it more like theater, especially when we learn that we’re not the only ones watching. There are three gauze drapes that mask the space and are drawn up at points during the first act, leaving the dance spectacle increasingly exposed. Occasionally one of the dancers begins to hesitate in front of these open windows, looking out. The dance becomes one of defiance, turning itself outward, almost daring whoever it is watching beyond to make a choice. Will they turn away and slink back into darkness, or become a disruptive force?

Donovan cuts away from this action at the last minute, rising from the audience and addressing us directly. This is his story, and  onstage is a reconstruction of that night – one he remembers so vividly yet cannot place himself in the memory. The lamps are all wrong – in the real cabin they were much more distinct. Through sometimes-wandering prose, Donovan builds the context of his tranquil place: an inherited upstate cabin which sat empty until Donovan began using it as a secret meeting place for his lover, Stewart (Tyler Ashley). And later, once Paul finds out (Brandon Washington), it’s a place where the three of them go. They transform squalor into beauty (although Donovan really only shows us the beauty, which might be why the work sometimes feels like it’s in a state of drift, reluctant to look directly at that which acts upon it). A fourth character who only exists insomuch as Donovan describes him and his actions – the next door neighbor and handyman Tulliver – appears and fairly quickly becomes a menacing presence, at which point Heather Christian’s uneasy sound score begins to pay off.

There is a song, or remnants of a song, sung by Donovan in the empty cabin. It’s a striking moment, but is difficult to place. Where are we now? Are we here, in the theater? Are we there, in the cabin?

Later, the drapes are drawn and a film is projected on them. It’s all cicada-laced atmospherics, long shots of hands holding coffee cups, the three men in various states of lounging – its power comes from both seeing the “real” room (the film is shot on location at a cabin that fits Donovan’s description) and the peacefulness of the place.

The film acts as a cover for an internal transformation into, if not real time, at least closer to the present. The cabin’s furniture has been covered up, moving from memory into a more tangible state. Donovan and Washington navigate it, eyes closed, reaching out as though trying to touch something that was perhaps never there. Tyler Ashley, notably, is absent. This is as close as we get to a hint at what actually happened after that night in the cabin.

Ultimately, Cabin is an inversion on the expectations that come along with a ‘space disrupted’ structure. Donovan builds a tranquil place effortlessly, and then creates darkness within the negative (theatrical) space around it, using it as atmospheric pressure to hold the memory in place. He never quite destroys his creation, but in an abstract sense, he transfers his memory to us and the traumatic event that disrupts it feels all the more nightmarish. Like we can’t remember what happened. We don’t want to remember. So we reach out in the dark, hoping to touch something that reminds us of what once was.

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