With hell as other people, the theatrical installationists GAle GAtes et al. keep their audience right in the thick of it.
Their current production, So Long Ago I Can’t Remember—a divine comedy, director Michael Counts and his company partition their cavernous Dumbo digs into a sequence of chambers and elaborate mis-en-scenes. The audience proceeds through this architecture of performance/perception with a blend of nonchalance and vulnerability more familiar in haunted houses than at conventional proscenium stagings, where one’s fixed in a seat.
This manner of mobile dramatics emphasizes receptiveness and self-regard (and inadvertently accommodates wandering attention), continually tinged by rubbing shoulders and making way for other viewers as they move nearby, view, and are ushered along to the next set of grotesqueries or fascinations. Each of us, modeled in our journey, a stew of urges and hesitancies as to what lies around the next corner. (Do the believers return to the haunted house, or do they indulge in the memory? Do the canny want to go back and see how what won worked?)
As per its subtitle, So Long Ago is based on Dante’s wayward foray via the antipodes to catch a glimpse of transcendence while still alive. The Florentine poet’s ambition is a human one, but ya’ gotta take the low road, as he’s informed by monsters blocking his early path up Mt. Purgatory.
GAle GAtes’s approach, however, is one of immersion, not elucidation, so don’t go expecting a ride on the shoulders of the serpent Geryon, or the exquisite propulsion of terza rima. With sonic disruptions by composer Joseph Diebes and the slippery texts from Kevin Oakes overlayed through the PA while they’re being mouthed or closed-miked by the performers, the impressions of “So Long Ago…” are storms’s exultations and the troubled afterburn of nightmares.
As evident of an influence as any particular Dante trope is the antic image-mongering of downtown theater stalwarts the Wooster Group and the Ontological/Hysteric Theater. Counts and Co. also shoulder in a catalogue of the 20th century’s more murderous social mandates, making sure Hell is updated to include lonely lynchings and the devastations of both Nationalist and Stalinist Socialisms.
The bulk of the evening’s two hour-long halves is spent touring the Inferno’s 9 levels and numerous ditches, those locations rife with spectacle. After the Inferno, a wordless musical chorale in a forested Purgatory will serve as a sort of harmonic cooling pool that leads to the only set with a high ceiling: a crepuscular, misty Paradise back by the single exit door.
But, as with the original Comedy, the evening’s juicy bits are in the Inferno, not its two less atrocious sequels. Through the infernal adventures, the audience passes on to the next level under dim arches or doorways, find themselves met by a Papal entourage in a sandy lot at the rear of the stony palazzo, or in theater seats stretched along a hallway in the gangster-era Waldorf-Astoria for a mob hit and a bit of latter-day streaking courtesy of the modelesque Virgil (played by Kate Moran with her diction tugged as taut into a jaw mike as her thin hair is onto the back of her head).
At one point, a boardwalk twists over many neon tubes aligned on an expanse of concrete floor, harshly illuminating an otherwise empty set. A Dante reference, perhaps: Cocytus, the frozen lake in which Lucifer and the rest of the treacherous are embedded, is the last of the Inferno’s rivers. There’s nothing to do on the “So Long Ago…” walkway but gaze at one another or at the white shock of the space. There’s also but two ways to get where you’re going, either join the crowd’s serpentine transit or (to pinch the welcome over Hell’s gate) abandon hope of theatrical redemption and flounce back out the way you came.
That walkway leads to the final level of Hell. The fact that, before the basest doom, we’ve got nothing to watch but ourselves in soporific motion, will come as no surprise to jaded viewers. Today’s culture of the entertained has two operative principles: Feed the need, and: One must always be watching one’s watching.
And then in to the last pit, a crimson interior of a box that is sealed once the audience has filed in. Four bug-eyed, nerve-wracked loons sit on central high stools, clutching their knees and barking snippets of dislocution, staring alternately at one another or thrusting their faces straight up to a ceiling screen showing the underside of a chewing goat. The enigmatic discomfort recalls Beckett’s pared, agonistic “Play” though without its spark of grim humor. The encircling audience sees, through this heart of futile activity, its other half, peering through from the room’s other side.
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Counts and his expansive GAle GAtes productions have been garnering attention since the acquisition in 1997 of the company’s huge space on Main St. near the Brooklyn shore. The titles of recent pieces indicate the company’s production values, heavily reliant on visual detail and its varied effects: 1839, the year Daguerre started us mugging for the (video)camera; Tilly Losch, with its eponymous image from Joseph Cornell, miniaturist, mental traveler and sublime burrower into memory’s sad core; Field of Mars, the estate from which Nero and the nobles watched Rome burn. With So Long Ago they’ve hauled in a template of cohesive drama by adapting the work that Borges, the 20th century’s best read man, called “the apex of literature, of all literature.” As allegory is the scourge of imagination, so does a literal depiction block out association and resonance, so GAle GAtes lets the pictures do the talking and the audience do the walking. Attempts to spice the evenings’s progress with dance become redundant, with Ken Roht’s choreography trouping out interludes of Brighton Beach showgirls pumped with industrial fervor.
Oakes’ scrumbled texts don’t pretend towards the plaintive recounting of Francesca da Rimini’s unruly passion, Dante’s mentor, Brunetto Latini’s appearance among the sodomites. Oakes’s starting off point seems more the gibberish of Plutus, god of wealth, or of Nimrod, who appears late in the Inferno, the Babylonian king who got the world’s languages scrambled for his ultimate high rise project, the Tower of Babel. Aside from political harangues, Oakes’s clear speech is restricted to a lengthy argument in German over a banned book, and a vision of oneness with the deity that sounded as convincing as a near death experience related by someone confronted with an unpaid debt.
These more obdurate preferences on the part of GAle GAtes are apparent from the start, with Virgil strutting in on the audience assembled in the café staging area, wearing tall black boots, a small black dress, and an air of disdain that she’ll affect for the rest of the evening. Her list of no-nos for which “you will be asked to leave” is interspersed with tenuous stabs at cultural scene staging and poetical whims, before she leaves the scene to a group in longboat with a goat on the prow, drifting by and uttering non sequiturs that enjamb water, years, thwarted desire, drowned sailors. One gets the drift.
The vacant blue gap in the back wall saved the caped intruder (Brian Bickerstaff posing as—Dante? Virgil? But aren’t we Dante? And isn’t our guide Virgil?) from being crushed to end a posh café scene that might be lampooning either those watching or fashionable brutality, at which point he and his dance partner (Michelle Stern) cut loose with some beaming tap, before the audience follows the longboat, now manned by Cleopatra and several Helens, which is making stationary progress in Scene 2’s dark marsh.
The torments take on a gruesome appeal with the scene outside the palazzo of the Pope (Josh Stark, in a role of clammy, slobbering threat) who, if memory serves, is an earlier Boniface from the one in office during Dante’s day, that early namesake serving one of the shorter terms on record, eighty days of atrocities even his supporters couldn’t tolerate. Andrew Hill’s lighting, pinpoint and searing throughout. So Long Ago renders this scene’s languorous misery all the more vivid.
And so on through subsequent follies to the finale, which nods to either Wenders’s Wings of Desire or the Cirque du Soleil before the performers reappear, applauding from a balcony, and the audience gets the parting irony of being shown out the back door, into the equal emptiness of night and the massive, surrounding waterfront structures.
As a final irony, it’s probably not the credulous who go back to a haunted house for more, but the canny, who want to see how what won worked. Dante’s trek through hell started erosion there (he simply titled his poem “Commedia,” indicating it to be in the language of the people; the “Divina” part got added centuries later.) GAle GAtes grasps for the veracity in horror, the compulsion to show, not tell.