Fluid Measure

at the Organic Lab Theater

Rearranging the Dark House was an overwhelming disappointment. This original dance/theater work, created by Kathy Maltese, Donna Mandel, and Patricia Pelletier of Fluid Measure, is a barrage of confused, inconsistent images lacking emotional impact or theatrical weight. The piece assaulted the audience with its crashing choreography, clanging score, and overall frenetic energy. Mounting such an exaggerated work in the tiny Organic Greenhouse studio was not only inappropriate but fatal to the piece.

The work explores the arrival of a new baby in a faker-than-fake American nuclear family. It begins with a monologue delivered by Mother (Daryl Heller) expounding on her fear of surrendering her life in the interest of raising her child. “Good-bye thoughts longer than five minutes,” she laments. “Good-bye uninterrupted conversation.” Baby (Dan Prindle) comes on next, dressed in yellow Reeboks, yellow Dr. Dentons, and a black swallowtail coat; he has a huge white plaster head. Baby then learns to walk, slowly rising to his feet and stumbling toward Mother.

From this opening moment, Rearranging the Dark House demonstrates a severe lack of rigor. Heller’s opening monologue is delivered with minimal commitment, and Baby’s exploits seem cheap and false because they’re so overdone. Neither actor displays any personal investment in what he or she does, but then such an investment may be too much to ask, given how embarrassingly thin the material is.

Soon we meet sister Emily (Emily Stein), who doggedly tries to learn to dance during much of the piece, and Father (Jim Haun), who ignores his familial responsibilities in favor of setting out in search of Atlantis. Once in a while a bear (Merrick Mitchell) wanders in, twisting his body sensually from side to side but not having much of an impact on the family or on the piece.

Rearranging the Dark House seems to be about trying to heal a family distraught over the departure of the father, a departure that perhaps exacerbates the lack of intimacy and affection between Mother, Emily, and Baby. But the piece never explores this family beyond statements of the obvious. We see many scenes of sibling jealousy and rivalry, for example, as when Baby attempts to imitate and appropriate Emily’s dancing while Emily slowly stews. But we don’t see sibling rivalry used as a starting point to examine anything more psychologically weighty. Nor does the piece allow that sibling rivalry to develop or evolve, which might let us see the results of such unhealthy energy. Instead these artists seem content for Baby and Emily to bicker endlessly, as if resentment and hostility between children were a new and startling discovery.

The story is continually interrupted by danced sections that add little flavor or texture to a piece that’s already unclear. The choreography, by Maltese and Mandel, is not only muddy and seemingly haphazard but lacks any rhetorical integration with the story–the characters simply stop whatever they’re doing to jump around for a while. Michael Zerang’s musical score, with its intentional discordance and inconsistent rhythm–rather like dropping an armload of bongos, cymbals, and assorted bells down several flights of stairs–might be interesting in another setting, but here it just makes the confusion onstage more numbing.

The piece shifts from the merely unpleasant to the downright insulting in the second act, which attempts to rectify the problems confronting the family. In separate scenes, Baby, Emily, and Mother confront the bear, resulting in a kind of liberation for each. Baby takes off his big white head (although this doesn’t seem to affect his character noticeably). Emily, who has heretofore danced in a highly constrained, balletic way, suddenly lets loose and starts incorporating some of the bear’s sensuality into her movements. Mother, who has been distressingly uptight throughout the show, wrestles with the bear and ends up being a lot more fun. What insults me here is not only the simplemindedness of this “solution” but the way in which it panders to sexist notions of women: all that Mother needs to become less frigid is a good roll with the bear.

And to top it off, some kind of “feminist statement” is attempted at the end of the piece, when Father finally returns home. The piece does not attempt to reintegrate him into the family, despite the fact that his absence has been lamented throughout the show, but instead he is immediately killed off by the bear. Every member of the family looks delighted. If this gesture is an attempt to metaphorically free the women and children from patriarchal thinking, whose focus is the accomplishment of impossible and self-destructive tasks, then Father needs to have been painted in a much harsher light, as an impediment to some more hopeful energy. But we’ve seen him simply as a good-natured boob.

Susan Michod’s set contains wonderful elements put to poor use. The translucent walls adorned with brightly colored and excitingly painted landscapes could have created a charmingly fakey atmosphere, but unfortunately the set suffers from monumental overkill. Every element onstage, from the costumes to the props to the three stairs at the rear, is decked out in bright colors, harsh textures, or both. Such overdecoration doesn’t seem to serve the piece in any way, doesn’t shed any light on its imaginary world or on the psychological states of its characters.

What makes this piece doubly disappointing are the moments that do work. Father, in a magically kitsch moment, actually swims offstage in search of Atlantis. Mother, after yelling at her children, is transformed by a picture frame into a portrait of a huge, snarling face. These moments make it clear just how powerful irony and a sense of humor can be, especially when used in an art form that’s potentially this pretentious. I spent too much of the piece longing for a return to those moments, hoping that I wouldn’t continue to be asked to take this whole thing so seriously.

Fluid Measure’s last piece, Three Who Travelled, contained so much delightful material. And certainly this is an ambitious project–creating original work in collaboration is enormously difficult. Maltese, Mandel, and Pelletier seem to have a core of ideas, but they should have clarified them, for themselves and for their audience.

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