Music/Theatre Workshop

at the Beacon Street Gallery

Love is absurd. It’s quiet. It’s loud. It’s passionate and even violent. But in Rhyme or Treason, the new collaborative performance presented by Music/Theatre Workshop, love isn’t the only thing that’s blind and confused. Here are 45 minutes of excess and aimlessness.

Try this mixed bag: two French court ladies-in-waiting in Kabuki faces, two strapping young men in executioner hoods and black dance belts, baroque tinklings on the piano, a set that has banners, mirrors, and a Japanese flag rising out of the floor, and a cliche-ridden script.

In the press release, the producers explain the “collaboration” as a chain of artistic inspirations: Mikel McGrew’s costumes inspired John Story’s installation, which inspired writer Jeff Hagedorn, who inspired composer Mark Elliott, who ultimately inspired director/choreographer Michael Sokoloff.

But instead of an integrated whole, Rhyme or Treason is a crowded display of uneasy artistic coexistence (and no, that hardly seems to have been the intention). For a collaboration, this piece lacks convergence or interdisciplinary interaction: the installation could stand by itself; the poetry has little to do with the movement; the music hangs on the courtly dresses of the two actresses and not much else.

Story’s installation, with two-sided banners and a wall of mirrors, created a spooky environment that was both inviting and repellent. The blood red of the Japanese rising sun streaked across the floor and walls. But although Story does his part in providing an interesting setting for the scene, not much happens.

Hagedorn is quoted with some promise in the program book: “I saw my love take a bamboo pole / and lure a fish to its death. / Both fish and man appeared to live / for the struggle. / His eyes bulged and his face / took on a glow. The fish’s gills / became the most brilliant blue-green. / And once my love caught his fish / he held it in his hands / to admire its still writhing flesh / and he ripped the hook from its mouth. / I’m a fish myself–following his bob / and his lure.”

But this excerpt is the exception. Hagedorn employs the most tired of dichotomies (“the man who loves me . . . the man I love . . .”) and an astounding assortment of narrative cliches (“mountainous breasts,” “bloodcurdling screams,” “shifting like ocean waves,” “life drifts toward you then away like the tides”).

Because there is no attempt at humor, at self-effacement, at any of the little moments of love, and because the danger of excessive love is so contrived, Hagedorn’s intensity collapses into a kind of self-parody. He gets no help from the performers, who seem to have confused passion with volume, cranking it up every time an emotional point rolls along. The women hit a certain emotional pitch and simply didn’t let go for the duration. Read with more sincerity in a leaner, simpler theatrical context, Hagedorn’s few sparks might have caught fire, but in Rhyme or Treason they flounder helplessly.

Then there’s the matter of movement. If it looked familiar it was probably because, as far as the male performers were concerned, Ken Russell did it better in the fighting/making-love scene of Women in Love.

In general, the movements were stiff and predictable. This was particularly disappointing because choreographer Sokoloff was responsible for the successful movement in the recent Goodman production of Sunday in the Park With George. Admittedly the space at Beacon Street Gallery is too small and narrow to accommodate a bold choreography, but Sokoloff barely challenged the constraints, and even so the dancers seemed to be holding back for fear of bumping the walls.

There was also a mildly exploitative feeling to the men’s nakedness; there really was no reason for it. With their executioner hoods–a terribly contrived suggestion of danger–the single message was that they were meaningless pieces of meat.

This black anonymity totally undercut Hagedorn’s more lyrical passages–after all, the entire exercise was an adoration of men as lovers. The lack of personality in the male persona made the sexual rivalry between the women unbelievable and ultimately uninteresting. What the hell were they fighting about?

Rhyme or Treason’s highlight was the music, thanks to percussionist Eddie Mason. Mason, known for his work in a variety of jazz contexts, and the fire in MTW’s last presentation (Street Sounds in the Plaza), shot some vitally needed energy into the performance. His contributions, which appeared to be mostly improvised, served as punctuation throughout the piece: Mason underscored the movements, Hagedorn’s words–even watching Mason in the mirrors was often more interesting than watching the performance itself. And as good as Eddie Mason is, that certainly says something about the rest of the piece.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Kameczura.