all things under dog, where two things are always true
November 17–19, 2022
Choreographer Monica Mirabile knocks on the door to Performance Space New York’s Keith Haring Theatre as if at the threshold of a home, before ushering the audience in to all things under dog, where two things are always true. In the dark entryway, we collect around a family posing for a portrait: a daughter seated on a chair, parents perched above her with loving hands on her shoulders, and two dancers assuming the roles of family pets at her feet, complete with tufts of fur sprouting out of their eyebrows and hands. A single light illuminates them in a square frame. Mirabile, dressed in a shiny crimson suit, looks on like a ringmaster but doesn’t join the picture.
Invited into this familial space mere seconds into the performance, we are drawn into their relational orbit as they smile for us. Reaching, dragging, and cradling one another in slow motion, they melt out of the frame and disappear into the cavernous theater. We follow their forms to a living room where the television is on, the New York Times art section artfully placed on the floor, and a large, surreal painting—also by Mirabile, with two masked figures in a twilight, one wearing pointe shoes—hangs over the velvet sofa. With the black box theater fully transformed into a home, we begin a journey through its rooms, the family’s milestones narrated by a dynamic score from Aaron David Ross, including music from Eartheater. The vignettes are not necessarily linear and include a great deal of simultaneous action, sometimes in different playing spaces. You can’t witness it all at once.
There is love and violence in all the archetypal, over-the-top domesticity.
Practicing the chants of a teenage cheerleader, Kate Williams initiates a series of partnered backbends and flips that land on the floor and end in hugs, to the sounds of a pop song. Maxi Hawkeye Canion cradles Williams like a baby and gives her over to her mom, Amanda Wallace, who has spent the last few minutes smoking on the sofa, her stockings laid bare and a little ragged. Wallace walks with Williams in her arms only to drop her carelessly to the floor. Perhaps Williams has now fully come of age.
Using "mafia" as a framework for a family ecosystem, the performers take on outsized characters that move fluidly between the tired tropes of an outlaw family, ones we know so well from TV and movies, and softer, caring moments of transition and textual reflections that feel more particular to the individual performers.
When the balance lands, harsh plot lines like car crashes yield to tender sequences of partnering, the performers attentively guiding each other’s bodies into the air for big lifts overhead. A pillow fight turns into a sort of hedonistic, disco tornado in which even the sofa spins, the family spit out in front of a Christmas tree. They lay in an exhausted heap for a few minutes before barreling into a morning of presents. An ominous setting of a doctor’s office—where Mirabile asks Joy Norton, as a mustachioed Dad, to explain the pain—gives way to celebration.
In one of the most engaging scenes of this dance-theater work, two wooden thresholds, that previously conjured a feeling of the gallows, drop down and transform into a long dining table. The performers work as a team to build and dress the table, Wallace and Reed Rushes even going so far as to wield power drills to screw in the tabletops. They invite the audience to sit at the table, where wine pours and bread breaks in a highly stylized fashion amid laughter. Canion passes grapes before joining Williams on the table. The mood tilts toward a bacchanal as Williams lifts her hips in a bridge and Canion puts the fruit in her mouth. The emotional shifts from communion to hilarity to near ecstasy are quick pivots leading suddenly to grief, all of it read through the performers’ expressive faces. Norton floats overhead like a corpse, perhaps felled by a bleak diagnosis from earlier. “I’m falling,” escapes his mouth.
As part of PSNY’s Healing Series, “a year-long reflection for the organization on the political potency of healing and the role performance plays in it,” the work takes on the practice of care as both process and product. The quiet, plainspoken intimacy in the way they help one another build this scene, that seems to be so many things at once—a theatrical climax, a necessary plot turn, and beyond the fourth wall, a window into the artists’ bonding and creative process—is effective and endearing. Meanwhile, absurdity winds its way throughout, tempered only by sincerity.
Spilling out of the Christmas morning scene, I refocus on a restaurant table, clothed in red gingham. Wallace, cigarette at the ready with a full ashtray in front of her, is there to gossip with Mirabile about a drug death. Coming into her own as the Don, Mirabile uses this time to wax philosophical with phrases like, “I don’t believe in evil; we just lack resources.” They talk about stakes and moral codes, as loud thumping sounds from action elsewhere. It becomes clear that the “mafia” in question here is really this chosen family of under-resourced artists, getting by however they can. Mirabile makes it funny by playing it so straight, and yet, the connection for her, between artists and gangsters as bands of outsiders, is real. Perhaps less of a stretch, her commentary comparing dancers to immigrants, doing the thankless work of building up a nation, or in this case, a culture, hit more poignantly.
In the end, Mirabile’s very personal grief over the death of her Sicilian American father subsumes this more esoteric political banter.
We follow the family in a full circle around the room to their final destination, a platform stage with a large hole cut out of the middle. Labored breathing accompanies us. Mirabile is mic’d and she asks, “Can you hear me? Dad?” Her heartfelt words of thanks to him—for teaching her how to love, how to support, how to fight—keep the very literal ‘black hole’ from being silly. Suddenly there are more dancers crawling all around us as Mirabile spins in a harness above the hole and Wallace rotates from the living room ceiling. In a sort of coda, the other performers strip and jab at the air, vulnerable boxers with their pants swishing at their feet.
The original family slips down the hole as another family replaces them in the living room, settled into a new portrait. Is this the result of murderous turnover or a model for a legacy of resilience? all things under dog, where two things are always true leaves us to ponder both.