The Lament of the Onion Cutter

Theresa Sofianos

at Charybdis, April 23-25

By Carol Burbank

Theresa Sofianos’s visceral 45-minute piece is one of those beautiful, difficult experiments that give the Chicago performance-art scene its distinctive energy. Loyal audiences of other artists and interested friends, a variety of spaces in which to develop work, and a seemingly endless supply of performers from local schools all contribute to an environment that supports innovation for those willing to take the step.

Sofianos, newly graduated from Columbia College’s Interdisciplinary Arts Program, has taken a remarkable leap. Many performance artists try to reach the feelings through the mind, shaping narratives and images that grab the intellect first. Others aim for the heart, using pathos or finely tuned melodrama to seduce their audiences into an emotional state. But Sofianos cuts right to the body, using a solid, dignified ritual as a frame and incorporating a performance task–peeling and cutting onions onstage–that pulls audiences into her funeral rite, invoking the involuntary impulse to weep.

After two years of development with a team of artists that included Gina Buccola, Liz Cruger, Becky Pavlatos Gascon, Karen Sorenson, and Jenny Magnus, who provided an able outside eye, Sofianos came up with The Lament of the Onion Cutter, connecting the rigors of grief with the potentially torturous act of chopping onions, using that smell, sound, and sting as the core experience of a ritual honoring her younger brother Michael, who died in 1994. Sofianos sees his death as the catalyst for her life as an artist, but the ceremony is more than a mourning tribute to her muse. Using Sumerian and Greek archetypes of grieving and transformation, she and her collaborators structured an experience that took me and other audience members almost against our will into the uncomfortable, fearful experience of grief. Having thought through the onion metaphor, the group performs the work with a conviction that makes the act of chopping an onion more than a cliche about the layers of grief. Instead Sofianos leads us into a state of physical and emotional overstimulation, a state that remained with me in the form of burning eyes long after the performance was over.

Not everyone shared my involvement. About halfway into the piece, the woman next to me dropped her head in her lap and said, “These onions are driving me crazy!” Clearly the physical discomfort that pulled me in was pushing her away. It was an interesting lesson. Sofianos’s oniony manipulation literally depends on the intensity of an audience member’s susceptibility to the fumes and his or her willingness to give credibility to the work’s unexplained, suggestively archetypal images.

Nonetheless, no one left the performance early. Part of this loyalty might have been due to friendship, but I think what mainly kept us there was the ritual pace, with its dignity and seriousness. I know that the intensity of the polyrhythmic music and the calm professionalism of the performers kept me engaged. From the ushers’ solemn welcome to the final procession into the street, the performers moved steadily through their imagistic rite, testing the limits of narrative by disorienting and reorienting audience members through physical, musical, and visual means.

The sensuality of the performance was striking. Our tickets were onions, which we carried with us throughout the long wait for the performance to start, finally tossing them like silky baseballs into overflowing baskets. The wait began to feel like a preparation, and the time to socialize and settle in contributed to my feeling that we were a kind of congregation. The set was simple, but it transformed the Charybdis loft into striking hard and soft lines. Draped platforms and curtains were placed at regular intervals across the stage, and a worn wooden pew sat a little to one side. There were cutting boards and knives on every surface, and the loft’s blue walls were blurred by milky plastic curtains. It seemed a transitional place, suggesting altars and tombstones.

The first two onion cutters entered with sacks and skirts full of red and white onions, which thumped and pounded onto the hollow platforms where they were dumped. Then the performers knelt or sat to peel and cut. For a full 15 minutes, they were fully occupied with the rhythms of slicing and shredding, and the air grew thick with the percussive sounds of chopping and the pungent smell. Another woman entered from the back, dragging a blue velvet bag full of rock salt or small white pebbles, which she played with like a little girl in a sand pile, a performance that had overtones of playing with the ashes or bones of the dead. One cutter lay white onion halves in a row leading to the audience; the other, Sofianos herself, hacked her purple onions into chunks and began the story of the phone call announcing her brother’s death.

As she spoke, the aural collage began to be better defined: the ushers sliced the onions in their baskets with brittle taps, and one onion cutter chanted, “She said, she said, she said,” stretching out the syllables until they sounded like a whispered wail: “She saaaad, she saaaaaad.” By the time Sofianos began to sing to the accompaniment of a whispering, sibilant voice-over and the plinking tones of a steel guitar, the fumes had begun to sting my eyes. The sensation of unwilling tears blended with the secretive, muttering rhythms to produce a shimmering sense of fear and anticipation.

It was the same sensation I’ve felt during funerals, a feeling of surveillance by others and a desire for release along with a profound reluctance to give in to tears. I felt a growing sense of dread, as if the slow progression from waiting to watching to listening and smelling the acrid onions had made me receptive to my own fears, although intellectually I still felt little more than sympathy for Sofianos’s story about her brother. She covered her face and clasped her hands, repeating small ritualistic gestures and adding her soft alto voice to the haunting sounds building in the room. A man, dressed in priestly robes and sitting silently behind Sofianos, looked forward, seeming to measure the audience. The dresses of the onion cutters were spattered with liquid from the onions.

The rest of the performance added further layers to the dreamlike physical stimulation. An uneventful but often lovely video flickered on the back wall, showing images of a Persephone-like woman wandering through a field, moving toward or away from a man darkening his face with mud or paint. The music reached a crescendo of whispers, calling forth Sofianos, who had been blindfolded and guided offstage by a priest in preparation for the next phase of the transformation.

Now dressed in a red gown and crimson velvet gloves and singing a sad, operatic song against the warm counterpoint of a cello, Sofianos was a richly textured figure, moving slowly toward the door–signaling relief for the blinking, squinting audience. Other performers’ voices soon began to double her words, muttering and speaking phrases as if she were being followed by ghosts. As she passed the remains of the onions, my brain kept cataloging the satisfying clutter of vegetables–the bloody pile of purple onions on one platform, the spill of salt and onion chunks at the feet of the priests following behind her, their eyes covered by translucent golden cloth. Every motion and gesture led to the door–and escape from the mocking fumes of the onions.

Finally, in a simple gesture that united the audience in a quiet line, Sofianos led a procession into the street, where the cold wind blew through the onion cutters’ thin silk shifts and sputtered at the edges of the ushers’ formal mourning attire as the cast wrung their hands in calm, cryptic semaphores. Without explanation but with a sense of fulfillment, the performance was over, ending in eloquent silence–in a secret language learned through the senses and realized in a funeral for a ghost. The Lament of the Onion Cutter was an unusual haunting, a graceful and dissonant experiment that used this prosaic vegetable to attain a surprisingly emotional physical knowledge.

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