An Epic: Falling Between the Cracks
at Randolph Street Gallery, through February 10
By Justin Hayford
Nancy Andrews is that pathetically out-of-touch substitute teacher we all tormented, the one who seemed unable to process reality in any meaningful way–or at least the Baltimore performer plays her with absolute conviction in her new solo performance piece, An Epic: Falling Between the Cracks. She first appears in a black-and-white film as a dark figure dragging something across a barren tundra, and as the film fades she hobbles into the gallery, struggling with an enormous book that seems to weigh 500 pounds. After hoisting the tome, entitled The Adventures of Francis Coco, onto a podium, she finds that the zipper on her enormous black parka is stuck. Finally freeing herself, she takes her position behind the podium, improbably dressed in pink tennis shoes and a robin’s-egg blue full-length chiffon dress with a casual smattering of sequins down the front. Her hair is a tangle of clumps. She licks her finger, turns a page in the book, and welcomes us to tonight’s lecture, speaking in a clinical whine peppered with antiquated idioms. Her expressionless face seems cast in cement. She has all the charisma of sodden Kleenex. We’re in for a long evening.
But Andrews’s anticharm is captivating–and somehow heartbreaking. Instead of creating a character she creates a void, a blank screen upon which we can project just about anything. And the more she discloses about her persona, the more elusive that persona becomes. She tells us that, at 158 years old, she considers herself a woman in her prime. “Unfortunately,” she adds, “my bank account is that of a five-year-old.” She confesses to needing new shingles, an oil change, and a new power cylinder for her jet pack. Trying to cobble together a personality from these fragments is futile.
In fact the impossibility of accurately representing a self seems to be Andrews’s central concern in this mysterious hour-long piece. Her persona has come to show us some documentary footage of Francis Coco, who’s clearly her alter ego: Francis is only a puppet, but she has a tangled mane of hair and thick glasses just like Andrews. Before showing the film, Andrews asks us to imagine that we made it ourselves–in essence to imagine that we are Andrews. Francis is about a foot tall–“the tiniest girl you have ever seen,” Andrews says–and she appears to us in the garden one morning. “You scratch your head, she scratches her head. You blink, she blinks,” Andrews explains. Francis is our mirror image. Francis is Andrews. We are Andrews. We are Francis. Yet like the Renaissance homunculus that her diminutive size suggests, Francis is also a self not yet born.
The first five minutes of Falling Between the Cracks are dizzying and playful. That playfulness continues in a black-and-white stop-action animated film of Francis Coco and her faithful dog Lemuel as they travel to outer space, to the bottom of the ocean, and to many points in between. Andrews accompanies the film with haunting strains from her amplified violin–introducing herself as Miss Evelyn, the accompanist. The film is intentionally kitschy: the exhaust from Francis’s spaceship is just a cotton ball, and her ship travels across a map of the constellations that seems pulled from a 1950s textbook.
Francis’s journey parallels the archetypal journey to self-actualization that traditional fairy tales mythologize. She leaves civilization behind, encounters a series of trials, confronts several beasts (her own unspoken fears), and returns to a home that will never be the same again. But while the typical fairy-tale protagonist lives happily ever after, Francis disappears without a trace. And Andrews, lamenting her lost friend, has become a folk singer, performing melancholy ballads in an attempt to raise money to continue the search for Francis.
Falling Between the Cracks is not nearly so schematic as this outline suggests. Rather it has a loose, hypnotic structure; images appear and disappear without comment and seemingly without reason. This haphazardness occasionally feels a bit studied, as though Andrews were aiming for quirkiness over resonance. A subtitle in the film, for example–“Without crunching, the moths devour the saltines in [Francis’s] larder”–lands with a thud, referring to nothing and going nowhere. But more often than not Andrews tosses out evocative gems. Francis’s sleep, we learn, is “undisturbed by gravity.”
In the end, the real tragedy and beauty of this epic is not the disappearance of Francis; it’s the disappearance of Andrews’s character. Though she is of course always before us, as a documentary filmmaker she’s merely a recorder of events that happen to other people–a cipher, someone who’s never focused the camera on herself. Though she and Francis went on identical journeys, the documentarian imagined the trip was not meant for her, and in essence she’s never been present at all. Searching for a self, she ends up with celluloid shadows of the life she never lived, and on which she’s left no trace.