Goat Island

at Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ

October 27 and 28 and November 3 and 4

The Goat Island performance group is one of Chicago’s hidden jewels. Their first piece, the critically acclaimed Soldier, Child, Tortured Man, premiered here in 1987 and then went on to tour 11 American cities. Though their current work, We Got a Date, is only their second, it demonstrates a remarkable maturity, thoroughness, and rigor, combining physically demanding movement sequences with skillful acting and careful staging to create a refreshing evening of performance.

We Got a Date is being presented in the gymnasium of the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ; the audience is divided into two halves, which face each other in two long rows of folding chairs. True to the environment, the four performers (Joan Dickinson, Matthew Goulish, Greg McCain, and Timothy McCain) enter from what might be the locker room, dressed in identical white T-shirts, long blue shorts, white socks, and black work shoes. The four stand in a stagy pose and then stride meaningfully to the far end of the room, preparing to walk the gauntlet between the two lines of spectators. It is as if the losingest basketball team in history is about to pass before the NBA draft.

Pausing before the expectant audience, the four performers stand two abreast and, with the utmost seriousness, hunch over and hop. Then they hop again. Then twice in succession. Then only once. They continue, in an evolving pattern, until they reach the end of the aisle between the spectators, and then suddenly run with all speed back behind the audience to return to their starting positions. And again they start hopping.

As they continue this pattern, their routines subtly change, as particular performers add or delete hops, causing simple yet carefully orchestrated formations to appear. Details and aberrations that pass in a moment become delightful, as each performer’s personal style of hopping becomes apparent. The performers seem to be single-mindedly following the steps of some grand, significant routine, which not only puts them through some humiliating paces–Timothy McCain ends up schlumping along the floor on his belly without using his arms or legs–but which seems utterly urgent.

The combination of urgency and senselessness gives this opening section the air of a child’s game, though ironically it lacks any clear objective, and of course it’s executed by goofy-looking adults. This tension is wonderfully exploited when the four finally take seats at a table at one end of the room, fold their hands, and listen with great earnestness to Dickinson as she recounts “evidence” of “Katie Bach [forcing] her little brother, Steven Bach, to stick his finger up their pet dachshund while Chuck Donchuss watched.”

After this absurdly serious moment, with Dickinson “confessing” in a perfectly detached cadence, pandemonium returns: the four enact what appears to be some sort of wedding ritual, Dickinson in a bridal gown, Goulish in a black taffeta prom dress, and Greg McCain in an ill-fitting dark suit. They throw each other around the stage in their efforts to capture a pair of wet Jockey shorts, as if possession of the underpants offered some hope of liberation. In this thrilling section, Timothy and Greg McCain toss Goulish about like a doll while Dickinson dances gracelessly. In the scene’s grotesque culmination, the bride is dumped on top of Timothy McCain, who then drags himself, using only his hands, down the length of the gym floor.

At this point the piece turns quite dark, as the intimacy the performers enjoy suddenly turns back on them. Goulish stands at one end of the room and begins to grill the other three about the details of their innocent childhood sexual experiences. Asking Greg McCain about his “intercourse” in the cloakroom with his seventh-grade teacher (during which, we learn, McCain wore the very pair of Jockey shorts so coveted by the performers), Goulish barks: “How many bodily fluids were exchanged?” Goulish’s perverse quest for intimate, irrelevant details gives him a horrifying power and pleasure, as the others obey without hesitation his orders to stand up or sit down. While this inquisition is going on, Goulish lines his eyes with fake blood and then blindfolds himself, a ghastly Oedipus whose hubris knows no bounds.

This final section, in which human intimacy becomes at once longed for and terrifying, reveals the inner workings of We Got a Date. As in the frantic wedding sequence, vulnerability–cleverly embodied in the wet underpants–is the prize that leads to either liberation or entrapment. The impulse to confess, to reveal personal details of one’s life, moves from being charmingly candid–as in Dickinson’s first monologue about the little boy’s finger up the dachshund–to pornographic.

We Got a Date is finally a terribly sad piece presented with consummate beauty. Every gesture, every phrase, every costume, every prop is lovely in its own coarse physicality. Director Lin Hixson reveals to us the wonder of the often-overlooked, impeccably structuring undancerly movement into a breathtakingly beautiful dance, phrasing ambient sound into music. In one stunning moment, Dickinson stands in one spot and sways her hips, accompanying herself with the creak of the floorboards.

A work like this is rich and yet remains accessible. There is no pretense or posturing. All of the performances are sincere, committed, and entirely personal. These performers seem to enjoy being in this piece much as they might enjoy wearing a favorite old shirt. Most endearing about We Got a Date is the sense of ensemble that develops, delicately, as the evening progresses. Clearly these five artists have created for themselves a very expressive common vocabulary–a vocabulary that not only delights and entertains but probes the psyche as well.

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