Optimism in Disaster
Fifteen years ago I wandered around Theater Artaud taking in Joe Goode's "Disaster Series" and found myself feeling like a happy country girl. Not only did the work communicate the weirdness of life in rural and middle America, but he installed the series in small stall-like spaces you visited like you might visit the animals at the state fair. It was hip then to have your audience do the walking and make dance mimic the conceptual art installations that dominated certain galleries at the time. But hip really wasn't what this was about. I had the sense of being in a barn (the theater used to belong to American Can) not just because he had his riotously miserable newlyweds masticating like cows and exhaling about Rock Hudson and Doris Day, but because each separate installation seemed to showcase a variety of the human species, the way a milking barn might hold a Jersey in one stall, a Holstein in another and a flashy Brown Swiss down by the barn door (that would have been the unforgettable Big Linda (Goode) in her tiny dress and big, hairy legs).
Human beings are the dance theater maverick's favorite farm exhibit. He appears to have run away from a world of miserable mouthed truck drivers (or, as one web site puts it his "red-necked, beer-chugging, foul-mouthed father"), along with two-bit coffee shops, and snarly waitresses with crank case coffee brewed yesterday, only to turn around and look back, and in looking back to see the world more clearly. In fact, the further away Joe Goode has gotten from his origins, the clearer the view has become. He knows the America where dust collects quicker and thicker than excitement or delight ever could—places or states of being that exaggerate human peculiarity to gothic distortion, where real violence lurks close to the surface of the everyday the way our veins nuzzle visibly against our skin, and yet where beauty lurks nearby, always.
He portrays these tensions, and no doubt always will, but the often scathing, frequently discursive irony that has been his primary tool has been softened and clarified by a welcomed and deepening layer of witty tolerance, nuance and compassion. His contempt for our herd-like natures—marrying simply because it appears the inevitable thing to do, shopping because we are programmed like good rats to shop, or needing to be subjugated or to dominate in a shifting and mysterious human pecking order—has molted into arch, satirical warmth. He expresses greater sorrow for our existential plight, which allows his characters, even his shrews (and he's a master at female shrews), to be more variegated. Consequently, his irony in recent years has acquired a new coloration as though he had firmly left his black, white and grey period behind him.
Now a professor in the Department of Theatre, Dance and Peformance Studies at UC Berkeley, the Bessie award winner is able to use the university's resources, from its studios, to Zellerbach Playhouse, to the fine stable of students from the department (which, however, is reeling from the state fiscal crisis) to launch his latest work, the world premiere of "Disaster Series, The Continuation," a title that rings with ironic, "Dragnet" portentousness. Although technically a student/faculty production, despite the guest appearance of JGPG regulars Liz Burritt and Felipe Barrueto Cabello, "Disaster Series, the continuation" was as polished a peformance as most JGPG offerings, and, in certain respects was even more burnished than a company run. Rather than a troupe of dancers who also have to learn how to act, Goode was able to draw from an array of dancers who know how to dance and actors who already know how to act.
"Disaster Series" opens with irresistably impish Cole Smith as our waiter for the night—Louie—who serves up eleven, sometimes overlapping disaster courses beginning with water and ending, purifyinginly, with fire. Decked in red jacket, bow tie, long French-style apron and pork-pie hat, Mr. Smith is as puckish an emcee as Mr. Goode has always been seductively arch. Harkening back to the floods unleashed in the first disaster series, Louie lets us know that "anything can happen" as he swamps a little diorama of a sleepy green rural town with water he pours from a watering can held aloft. Disaster exists anywhere, any time, and Micky Hart's eerie new age percussion helps the idea sink in.
But this isn't political disaster, or ecological disaster. There're no bridges collapsing or deaths by firing squad in Goode territory. This is disaster as everyday accident; disaster as heartless circumstance such as the catastrophe (diaster # 7) that sneaks up on a woman building her farm fence as ball lightening rushes along the wire—no rain even in sight—seizes her, and smacks her down dead (click on www.abc.net.au/science/news/stories for bizarre facts about ball lightening).
Even at his most political, Mr. Goode is an artist for whom politics rises up from the personal and concrete, from the redemptive beauty of light falling as seen from beneath the legs of a chair in a child's otherwise grim world, to the murky sexual politics between a harridan and her gay best friend, or the politics of big feelings in a man in a macho, violent society. From these tremors, Mr. Goode builds endless low-level tensions in groping, uneven but deeply human stories, stories that resemble well-written vignettes on scraps of paper tied with a found bit of string more than a book sectioned into chapters. That looseness has always been their charm and their weakness.
In "disaster #2: baby it's cold outside," Mitzi, the deadly redhead played with suave and ironic heartlessness by Leslie Murphy, verbally slays her beloved gay friend Rem (wonderfully embodied by Carson Creecy IV) like a huntress shooting her favorite prey for the sport of it. Mitzi may be an irresistible siren, but, in the end, for Rem, the friendship constitutes a disaster of its own. What Mr. Goode doesn't uncover, and has never satisfactorily disclosed is the nature of the chemical bond of such relationships, which appear and reappear throughout his work with an inevitability only matched by the lurking shadow of a crude, homophobic father figure. The bitch-worshipping gay man and the deliciously hateful Mae West/Jayne Mansfield/Marilyn Monroe emasculating everything in her path—it's a relationship that Mr. Goode's work can't seem to live without. This time he closes in on some truth about the toll of such iconic cruelty when Rem rejects Mitzi (disaster #8) and chooses to leave with the beautiful, delicate and far more feminine and vulnerable Butterfly, danced with exquisite delicacy by James Graham.
Goode's heterosexual politics have become more shaded in the last few years but haven't yet found their groove to the same degree his gay and gay/straight bonds have. In "#3," a pink, long faux-fur cuffed Liz Burritt, aka Wreckage, appears out of a heap of cars upstage right, half their lights dead. She is drunkenly hysterical over the loss of one of her designer heels, but what is actually wrecked is her marriage, and Ms. Burritt, who embodies hysteria with comic extremis in her elegant suit (smart costumes by Wendy Sparks), longs to bury her rage in Fendi bags and other high-end accessories, to commit revenge or to die, and not necessarily in that order. Her Don Juan husband, meanwhile, played by Brett Dalton in an unconvincing blend of gigolo and earnest bad poet, is looking for something soft and finds it in the too-girlish Heidi Rose (the lovely Khloe Alice Lin), who veers from young, strong and assured to malleable, and finally to hysterical as she screams "Jump!" from a two storey platform. It is one of the least convincing trajectories of the evening, and the fault lies not in the actors but in Goode's conception of their motivations.
By contrast, Mr. Goode embodies the travails of relationship with slantwise poignance through two figures called wall boy and wall girl (danced relentlessly by Diane Fong and Andrew Ward) who, with the ferocity of German expressionists, smash against a wall that has outcroppings to hang on and climb up. As a metaphor for the obstacles and frustrations of contemporary marriage-gay, straight or in between—Mr. Goode has rarely said so much with such brutally elegant concision.
In between,Mr. Goode uses his signature chorus to dance, to sing, to stand seven strong in haunting silhouette up a ladder (recalling "Apollo" and "Falling Down Stairs"), but with even more shadowy power than usual. This is one of his most layered works, and in it the chorus really functions as an antiphonal device not only to knit the episodes together like connective tissue but to echo the action with quiet eloquence. As Louie drowns the town, four singers sing a lopped version of "It's Raining It's Pouring" ("Raining. Pouring. Old Man. Snoring.") They dance in beautifully formalized contact improvisation. They smash themselves into the floor to percussively underscore Ballard's failures. (The dancers include Mr. Cabello, Kristel Baldoz, Stephanie Johnson and Emily Varela). And in the last scene, they move with redemptive power to music by the Indian-style worldbeat sound of Dissidenten, bathed in shades of Tibetan red, fire purifying the landscape and offering hope in the sheer cyclical nature of life. Even disaster has a beginning and an end.
Photo: Diane Fong and Andrew Ward. Photo by Weiferd Watts.