How’s Your Love Life?

Peter Carpenter and Doug Stapleton

at N.A.M.E., January 19 and 20

By Carol Burbank

White window curtains lifted and dropped with the wind as the audience squeezed into N.A.M.E. Bare wood, brick walls, and an occasional thump from the upstairs neighbor were the only decorations, but the intimacy and simplicity of this informal space only intensified the darkly playful dance theater of Peter Carpenter and Doug Stapleton.

The two men shared billing on “How’s Your Love Life?” and collaborated on the first dance, Know No Wrath, a goofy flirtation between Stapleton’s character Gurlene Hussey, Carpenter, and the audience. Stapleton, dressed in a gown and wig, adds coy camp gestures to Carpenter’s spare choreography, the two men slowly advancing in small, sinuous marching steps toward the audience. Stapleton seems the epitome of a modern-dance drag diva until Carpenter joins him, stripping off his jumpsuit to reveal a yellow party dress that matches the feminine contortions of his almost maniacal mugging. This piece, more thematic than narrative, was a good introduction to the evening, which continually established, extended, and transgressed the boundaries of heterosexual gesture as a way to define a dangerous and exciting queer aesthetic.

Carpenter combines narrative and dance conventions to create a tension between expected resolutions and unanticipated gestural revelations. In Straining Mercy he plays a man of patrician bearing who drinks from a wine bottle and alternately actively stalks and wistfully haunts two women, a young girl played by Kristin Showalter and a wifely partner, Holly Quinn. The girl, servile and easily startled while hanging laundry, at first seems an easy pawn in the couple’s sex game; I came to think of them as her owners. But it becomes clear–in erotic if sometimes overly emblematic duets between the women, in chants from Shakespeare, in exaggerated gestures accompanying the tragic operatic sweetness of Mozart’s music, and finally in a remarkable scene in which the girl clips a wing of clothespins to Carpenter’s bare waist and up his bare uplifted arm–that she’s as much manipulator as manipulated. This dance ends with the couple dressing the girl in a jockstrap and holding her between them in a kind of pubic crowning, a highly charged but cryptic image of nudity and fetishistic power.

Carpenter’s Devour Mask is simpler, a solo in which he battles and embraces a dummy suspended at the center of the stage. To the moaning blues of Sarah Vaughan, Carpenter combines clowning and breathless melodrama as he confronts this unfaithful, careless torso, a mask cast as lover, friend, and passionate enemy. Carpenter moves in broad, plain, futile gestures, curving back on himself in his desire and loss. From the torso’s pants pocket he pulls cock ring, condom, coke, and poppers: concrete objects suggest a lover lost to AIDS, unfaithfulness, or simply emotional distance. “I’m not going to tell you it was wrong to want to be free” is part of Carpenter’s text. Whatever the personal story behind this buffeting courtship, Carpenter evokes a helpless everyman pitted against an everylover who dangles impassively, unreachable, already gone.

Stapleton’s ritualistic solo Our Whirling Endures continues the theme of the lost/dead lover. In a black dress and long, tangled black wig that contrasts with his white-painted face and hairy legs and arms, Stapleton looks like a young Tiresias, the mythical hermaphrodite cursed with psychic powers. But instead of casting bones he casts huge dice with a plus or minus sign painted on each side. Ruefully, he eyes the audience with each roll; the odds aren’t very good. His eulogy to the lost lover, danced and incanted in a trance that combines butoh and lip-synching of recorded music, is coy and archly pained. This will be you, he seems to say; I lost someone, and this is the good-bye.

Stapleton uses flames and candlelight very theatrically, at one point anointing and burning an egg-shaped lingam, dripping fire across the stage. But his dramatic tricks are less impressive than the tension he creates with slow butoh-derived gestures. “Oh, how I revel in conditions impossible to maintain,” he says in one of the long monologues that frame his rituals. But maintain them he does, at least performatively. After unwrapping the phallic lingam in a painfully slow dance, untying shirt after white shirt from a knotted bundle, he fans them in a circle around him, then one by one wraps them around him like a skirt, each of his steps painfully distorted, each gesture drawn out, before completing the ritual of burning.

Later he sits on a chair telling a story, his feet twisted together and angled 45 degrees above the floor, his body rocking and trembling, never resting. Moments like these contrast with the easy flirtation of his lip-synching and animallike girlishness, when he’s like a cross between a glamour queen and a snake. His androgynous persona and continual consciousness of the audience made this a hallucinatory performance: Stapleton stared at us as much as we stared at him, daring us to define him, shifting his gesture or intention just as it seemed to have been fixed.

This confusion, skillfully induced, was pleasurable. Stapleton and Carpenter are defining a queer theatricality that uses but does not limit itself to camp or modern-dance conventions. If both men are sometimes self-indulgent in their excess, that too is part of the performance. They invoke a wilderness of possibility, claiming a space that celebrates gender ambiguity without taming it.

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