Strange Action, Isabel Lewis’s first solo work, is an intentionally uneven, highly personal examination of the act of performing. The emphasis is on “process,” a choice buzzword for institutionalized performance. How, then, can a show riding on this thoroughly worn out idea, distinguish itself? Hint: the answer doesn’t lie in layered, meaning-seeking, pop-cultural references. As in the execution of any familiar form, details differentiate: presence, elocution, movement, and structural coherence. Strange Action, which played at P.S. 122 in early June, is worth talking about in regard to at least one of those components.
Lewis takes on the persona of impulsively chosen pop icons Mr. T and Nicole Kidman, moving back and forth between each performer and his/her character to question varying degrees of the distance between. Her boyfriend, dramaturg Josep Maynou, plays the “shadowy background figure” and offers a brief idea-linking story during Lewis’s costume change mid-show. Both performers consistently make piercing, almost aggressively implicating eye contact with their small audience. Their stories are hit or miss—their attempt to connect the most memorable part of each.
Like other postmodern, deconstruction-happy choreographers who use spoken word, diagrams, and props to illustrate concepts, Lewis continues to make her greatest impact through movement. The peak of the show is an extended sequence of head banging, explained as a way to quickly mimic an actor’s (specifically Nicole Kidman’s in Eyes Wide Shut) process of crying for four hours in order to portray extreme emotional exhaustion. Ann Liv Young’s influence (Lewis toured extensively with her) is clear in this sequence that starts with sensual, fluid expressions and then devolves into a self-flagellating display of aggressive, reckless abandon.
Since this is meant to get a reaction, here’s one: why should I care about a performer or the well-being of her brain and neck if she’s showing that she doesn’t? It’s an unfair gesture, and less conceptually rich than Lewis wants it to be. If the only thing to hang “shock” value on is a broken fourth wall and a commitment to simultaneously inhabiting a performance and the explanation of performance (yawn), then the physical drama doesn’t get the show anywhere beyond the superficial level of audience discomfort. (Clearly, there will always be those who believe in transcendence through pain and disgust—unfortunately, awful actions alone don’t turn a Young or a Lewis into a Bataille.)
Still, it’s Lewis’s physicality that distinguishes this piece at all. By examining, for example, the concept of “too much” through a superficial story about a thrift store jacket and hipster style, she loses ground. A more subtle and streamlined approach to the same concept: her sad, lovely, Beckett-quoting Kidman-strut in a blonde wig. The highest intelligence can reside in and communicate from the body; an intellectual dancer talks her best game when she remains close to it.