Nothing in its eight-year existence prepared the experimental performance troupe Goat Island for the reception it received in Croatia two months ago. Known for its eccentric, oddly structured pieces, the ensemble had performed its relentlessly nonlinear work How Dear to Me the Hour When Daylight Dies for the Eurokaz Festival.

Audiences showed up “dressed to the nines, wearing all their jewelry,” says troupe member Matthew Goulish–they were clearly ready for an evening of traditional narrative theater.

What they got was a typical Goat Island pastiche of found texts, scenes taken directly from movies, and highly stylized movement pieces. The work–a dark meditation on war, loss, and the fragility of human life–began, according to the troupe’s videographer, Adrian Blundell, with a “minimalist endurance section in which Matthew stands and rubs a place on his hand for five or ten minutes. Then all four ensemble members begin hopping up and down in patterns based on the stations of the cross for 25 or so minutes.”

The reaction of the audience reminded Goulish of a review he had once read of a John Cage concert in which the critic quipped: “If a small bell had rung every time the door opened for someone to walk out, the sound would have drowned out the performance.”

The show may have also hit too close to home. “At the end [Karen] Christopher plays a person who goes off to war, and Goulish plays a mother preparing a last meal before she leaves. And the final scene is lifted from Kurosawa’s Dreams, in which a soldier who died comes back to haunt his commanding officer,” says Blundell. Hard scenes to take in a country where everyone knows someone who was killed in Bosnia.

The harsh realities of life under the Tudjman wartime regime came up in the troupe’s workshops as well. Blundell recalls one student who did a hilarious piece about the relationship between a high-ranking military officer and a low-ranking soldier. “The officer was portrayed as a strutting, pigeon-chested, insignia-wearing fool.” When the student was told that the piece was obviously a comment on the current regime, “the boy went white and said in perfect English, like he was reading from a press release, ‘In no way was any part of my performance meant to represent any human beings living or dead.'”

Later over drinks the student admitted, “I have to cover myself, because the way things work around here, if you do publish or perform anything against the government you end up in the army.”

The incident reminds Goulish of a joke he heard the last night he was in Zagreb: “It takes a small amount of courage to climb up on the [statue of Croatian hero] Jelacic and shout, ‘Down with Croatia!’ But it takes a large amount of courage to climb down again.”

How Dear to Me the Hour When Daylight Dies is being performed Friday through Sunday at 7 in the gym of the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ, 615 W. Wellington (courtyard entrance). Tickets are $12. Call 666-7737 for info.

–Jack Helbig

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Matthew Goulish, Bryan Saner, Karen Christopher, Adrian Blundell, Mark Jeffery, Lin Hixson photo by Nathan Mandell.