TWO PEOPLE CAME OVER–WE DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TO SAY SO WE PLAYED WITH THE DOG AND OUR MINDS WANDERED
Michael K. Meyers
at the Dance Center of Columbia College
January 26 and 27
Einstein made one great mistake, according to Dr. Sherman Susman. (Susman appears as himself–a solid-state physicist with the Argonne National Laboratory–in Michael K. Meyers’s new performance piece.) Einstein wanted to order chaos according to classical periodic formulas. Such an effort misapprehends the very nature of chaos, which defies formulaic description. Rather, says Dr. Susman, we must “seek out the motif in the disorder.” Or, as a disembodied voice tells us late in the show, “keep your eyes moving.”
Meyers has taken these two related, deceptively simple directives and turned them into a richly textured, carefully articulated, and curiously beautiful theater work, Two People Came Over–We Didn’t Know What to Say so We Played With the Dog and Our Minds Wandered. This slow, contemplative piece, presenting in effect a series of glimpsed moments, is as intelligent and creative as it is captivating. Meyers is not threatened by chaos, and is too insightful an artist to rehash the idea that contemporary culture is disintegrating into disorder. Instead he embraces the chaotic, and recognizes the barely perceptible structures lurking there. They are structures grasped through intuition rather than reason, by association rather than logic. Though on the surface his piece may seem senseless and haphazard, it carefully orchestrates delicately shaded ambiguities, which combine to make for an emotionally packed evening.
Two People Came Over begins with a sly and engaging image. A man (Eric Leonardson) stands playing cool riffs on a snare drum with brushes, but he faces away from the audience, staring at a huge white drop hung at the back of the stage. The image is jazzy and yet detached, hip and yet hollow (the cavernous Dance Center space simply swallows the drummer). The peculiarly contemporary melancholy of this scene becomes the emotional backdrop for the entire show.
Then the image of a waving flag is projected against the white drop, and on the flag is what appears to be an oil tanker at sea. A man and a woman (Qi Gu Jiang and An Chee Min) stroll onstage, speaking intently but inaudibly to one another. Finally Min turns to us and informs us that Jiang is telling her a story of how his parents were sent to a farm in China during the cultural revolution, and how his father received a desperately sad letter from his mother. She also tells us that he keeps seeing a particular image, which is either a boat or a flag, or maybe both.
The attempt to communicate this story, and a story from Min’s life, becomes the central motif. We see two American actors (Mary Emmrick and Kenneth Boerma) trying to tell Min’s and Jiang’s stories, but they’re continually corrected by their Chinese counterparts. “There was this big party,” Boerma says. Jiang says something to Boerma, Boerma looks momentarily confused, and then amends his story, “There was this cultural revolution.”
These American actors try to duplicate the experience of their Chinese counterparts, a struggle that is plainly futile yet charmingly sincere. Interestingly, the Chinese performers are almost always inaudible, as if the “authentic” sources were intentionally distanced from us. Near the end of the piece, Emmrick and Boerma have their secondhand stories down pat–but they are still cheap imitations, performed in flat, nonactorly styles that seem intentionally distanced. Yet we know (or at least we think we know) that these stories are somehow “true,” based on the real-life experiences of Min and Jiang. What the American actors give us, then, are idiosyncratic re-creations of others’ memories. Memories that, as a program note says, “often become rounded and dim versions of themselves.”
In a sense the whole piece examines the problem of authenticity in reproduction when the “original” is indeterminate. Meyers’s work here echoes the notion of philosopher Jean Baudrillard that our culture endlessly duplicates simulations of simulations–mass production is the paradigm. As critic Johannes Birringer sums up Baudrillard, there’s “a relentless . . . reproduction and fabrication of reality, which leaves nothing in its place.” Meyers seems to take such sterile rhetoric and give it passion, allowing us to delight in the ambiguities of “fake” and “authentic.”
Perhaps the most successful exploration of this idea occurs near the end of Two People Came Over, when two nude models strike poses for Jiang, who paints them on the backdrop on which the waving flag is projected. While he’s painting, a man (Blair Thomas, also assistant director) wanders on with a video camera hooked up to a television monitor. He tapes various pieces of that action, as well as activity going on at the rear of the stage–Dr. Susman carrying on a conversation with two people sitting at a table; Min saying something and apparently performing a poem by Mao Tse-tung. What fascinated me was how drawn I was to watch the television monitor to “really see” what was going on, even though the screen was almost too small for me to see anything clearly. Somehow this medium of reproduction was “immediate,” while the artist actively painting live figures was not.
Then, in a brilliant final stroke, the videotape was projected against the white drop a few minutes later, showing me a reproduction that seemed even more “authentic” than the combination of live action and TV. True, it was an event I had just witnessed, but somehow it seemed a privileged “behind the scenes” view. But even this foothold of authenticity was pulled out from under me when I realized that I couldn’t tell if the video footage was the footage that had just been shot, or footage shot of similar activity perhaps a week ago.
Two People Came Over is finally a thrilling puzzle, one that offers no solutions but enchants by its complexity. All of the performers seemed perfectly integrated into this puzzle, unable perhaps to understand the big picture but committed to enacting their constituent parts. Most remarkable was the understatement of the performances. They hardly did anything, but there was a beautifully relaxed precision in all their activity.
Lauri Macklin’s and Meyers’s choreography is singularly successful: five dancers (Adrian Danzig, Bill Dietz, Macklin, Patricia Mowen, and Bryan Saner) alternately perform easy soft-shoe routines or nervously scurry about as though caught in a home movie running a touch too fast. This scurrying is expertly executed, especially during one part when the dancers perform a sequence “backward,” like a film in reverse motion, and then suddenly perform the sequence again “forward.” Saner is particularly riveting, scuttling about with such ferocity that I feared his legs would snap off.
Lou Mallozzi’s lighting design is simply luscious, washing the stage in warm colors, always helping to clarify and focus the action onstage. And Peter Gena’s music is perfect, adding great underlying tension.
It was only after the show that I realized how risky this piece was. There were no surefire crowd pleasers, no technical wizardry, no jokes to keep the folks entertained. And the piece moved quite slowly. Others might think these flaws, but I submit they are the marks of mature artistry, using the simplest of means to create a mesmerizing, meditative evening that opened up more questions than it answered.