Four-Play: WaxFactory's blind.ness at PS122
The papaya is posing a problem. Erika Latta, co-artistic director of WaxFactory, is rehearsing a sequence during which she scoops the flesh from a papaya with her fingers, cramming the fruit into her mouth. She then lets it dribble slowly back out, forming a bright orange mound of mush in front of her. But papaya remnants are clinging to her leotard top, which will cause trouble when she ends up wearing the elegant kimono of her Punk Geisha persona. After briefly conferring with fellow performer Gillian Chadsey, Latta adjusts the position in which she kneels, angling her torso forward. This time, the fruit drops cleanly onto the stage. Now director Ivan Talijancic can move from rehearsing the “Fuck Your Brains Out” and “Fabio” sequences on to “Garbage Bag” and “Hammer and Nails.”
Calculating fruit trajectories is par for the course as WaxFactory prepares its new performance piece blind.ness. Aiming for a visceral connection with the audience, blind.ness blends video, sound, and text elements to investigate the madness and spellbinding power of romantic love. At the core of the piece, though, are the various movement styles with which the four principal performers bring their personae to life.
“Personae,” Talijancic is quick to insist, not characters, because blind.ness, in impeccable Downtown style, jettisons the traditional accoutrements of realistic theater in order to operate at a more fundamental psychic level. Functioning partially as archetypes and partially as figures in a media-soaked dream, the piece’s four personae—along with Punk Geisha, include Million Dollah (Chadsey), Sweet Thing (Breeda Wool), and 2046 (Melody Bates)—embody four intertwined perspectives on love, each with its flaws, its vulnerabilities, and its insistent vitality.
This new piece fits smoothly into the elusive, evocative body of work that WaxFactory has created over the past decade. The company has created highly regarded site–specific productions of classic works, both canonical and avant garde; for instance, their 2001 production of Ibsen’s Lady from the Sea took the form of thirteen separate installations in Brooklyn’s Old American Can Factory, while they staged Heiner Müller’s Quartet in the basement halls of Croatia’s Diocletian Palace in 2002. Original works staged by the company include 2005’s …She Said, a free adaptation of a Marguerite Duras novel, and the noirish Delirium 27, which premiered in Ljubljana, Slovenia last January.
The latter production reflects WaxFactory’s significant European presence; the group has also performed in Switzerland, Portugal, and Austria. Slovenia has been a particularly central locale in WaxFactory’s work. After its New York debut this month, blind.ness will go on to Ljubljana’s Cankarjev Dom. Music for the piece has been composed by the Slovenian electronic duo Random Logic. And Slovenian playwright Simona Semenic, the dramaturg for blind.ness, has played a central role in shaping the work’s complex contours.
Not only does blind.ness represent the interchange of collaborators from a variety of cultural backgrounds, but it also exists in a kind of liminal aesthetic space. The work’s debts to avant-garde tradition are visible in its lack of interest in narrative transparency and exploitation of the expressive potential of freely improvised movement. Talijancic and company gleefully juxtapose complex and disturbing emotional cues, as the piece delves deep into the masochistic and obsessive emotions released by sexual passion. In one striking sequence, Breeda Wool lets out a high-pitched laugh as she hammers her fingertips to the stage. But at the same time, the company is not seeking either intellectual abstraction or pure shock: the coolly contemporary technique and multi-media layering serves one of the oldest theatrical ambitions around, communicating with the audience at an emotional level that bypasses habit and conceptual defenses. In a word, they’re after catharsis.
At the same time, blind.ness is the culmination of an intricate and highly exploratory process. Talijancic and Semenic worked individually with performers for weeks to create separate narrative arcs, in effect shaping four solo dance-theater pieces. The company then worked to interlace this solo quartet, keeping all four performers simultaneously on stage and layering their actions together without, for the most part, adding direct interactions. Talijancic compares the method to musical composition, with four separate themes being blended to create complex contrapuntal effects based on the “constant negotiation of different levels of what’s going on onstage.” While the temporal aspect of blind.ness supports the musical metaphor, the spatial layering of the various performers also suggests a visual collage, in which the eye gets successively drawn to regions of the canvas whose relationship is left to the viewer to interpret. The addition of video and sound elements will further enrich the layering effect, giving rise to a kind of evolving action painting on the stage.
The four intertwined personae each draw on a different set of cultural codes articulating expectations and possibilities for women in love. Wool, as Sweet Thing, embodies a pin-up girl ideal of perfection, an ideal whose potency lives on in the responses to a certain vice-presidential candidate. Melody Bates, on the other hand, draws on the futuristic and melancholic atmosphere of Wong Kar-Wai’s film 2046 in depicting an android pleasure-bot afflicted with a tragic glitch. For all their visual and semiotic diversity, though, the personae share to some degree an ultimately pessimistic take on romance. Its undeniable pleasure and excitement is counterbalanced by the normative load, both personal and social, that exerts a deforming pressure on each of the women. Although the blindness of the title might at first take refer to the blind rush and need of sudden desire, the piece seems, at its core, more intent on exploring the self-alienation that contemporary understandings of sexuality can exact. With carefully wrought exteriors designed to excite the gaze of another, these women remain significantly blind to themselves.
But blind.ness, despite trafficking in deep and somber thematics, is no piece of agit-prop. Rather, like the recent films of David Lynch, its layers of potent and enigmatic imagery aspire to be baffling, disturbing, and intoxicating at once. Breeda Wool, at the end of a rehearsal, compared the piece’s sensual atmosphere to Y Tu Mama Tambien, a film that “leaves the audience thinking, ‘Damn, I want to go have sex with someone.’” Even if blind.ness doesn’t end up quite as aphrodisiac as that, audience members probably won’t ever look at tropical fruit with the same innocent eye.
John Beer has written about theater for The Village Voice and Time Out Chicago.