Robyn Orlin and Mathew Wilson

at the International Performance Studio at Facets Multimedia

April 24-26 and May 1-3

Robyn Orlin’s At the Drop of a Hat . . . and Mathew Wilson’s Please, Consider Me a Dream, now playing at the International Performance Studio, distinguish themselves from current Chicago performance art in the simplest of ways: not a word is spoken in either piece.

Both Orlin’s and Wilson’s work depend on gestures and movement, and on a fine appreciation for complex, surrealistic imagery. The work seems to translate literary notions in visual and aural ways that suggest “classic” conceptual performance art. Both pieces also have a certain sophistication–a European sensibility that’s not surprising given that Orlin is South African and Wilson is British.

Both pieces begin with stark, startling images. For At the Drop of a Hat . . ., the audience enters the dark performance space to see projected images of grass and two truncated, seemingly running legs on a screen. Nearly centered on the stage is Orlin, statuelike and about eight or nine feet tall in a long, skin-tight green dress. Beads of water drop in torturously slow fashion, seen only as they pass through a beam of cold blue light, onto Orlin’s head, face, and shoulders. The effect is eerie, sculptural, and surreal. Wilson, who begins Please, Consider Me a Dream immediately after intermission, at first seems one of the stage crew: he unloads from a dolly loaf after loaf of bread painted a ghostly white. It isn’t until the lights drop that the audience realizes that this ongoing task is the beginning of the performance.

As Orlin’s archetypal female figure comes to life, each gesture seems filled with meaning. This piece requires time to unfold because her movement is so slow and deliberate. The torture implied by the dripping water is echoed in the movements themselves, which seem pained.

After Orlin sheds the dress, we see that she’s standing on top of a birdbath that has a stone cherub folded around the base, its back turned to the audience. Then a bright red apple drops from between Orlin’s thighs into the water. Later dozens of green apples are scattered across the stage floor. Fascinated, Orlin tries to find a way to balance herself using an apple like a heel under each foot. The unsteady effect is comic.

Into these idyllic, almost Edenic environs drops a man’s brown felt derby. A tease, the hat seems to flirt with her, remaining always just slightly out of reach. At first Orlin is amused, but when she tries to put it on, the hat floats back up to the sky, leaving her frustrated.

The gender tension is underscored moments later when four men’s hats fall from the sky onto Orlin, who’s resting. This time she doesn’t try to wear the hats but to accommodate them. She lets them caress her body. She pokes her hands inside them. These hats seem nearly human, and her communication with them is both emotional and sexual. But as before, they eventually vanish into the sky.

Abandoned, Orlin is forced to try to find her own female iconography. Her attention goes back to the apples. Then a small door opens on the lower left-hand corner of the screen and a hand drops a pair of white high-heeled shoes onto the floor. Orlin approaches these suspiciously. When she tries them on, she has to force her feet into them. She grimaces but makes them fit. This is, after all, her destiny. No matter what she may have wanted–the power represented by the brown derbies, for example–the white high heels, with their beautiful but painful curve, is what she gets. Resigned, she struggles through the opening in the screen, then hobbles off into the darkness.

In Please, Consider Me a Dream, the gender tension is much more obvious and ugly. In the opening Wilson meticulously places 70 loaves of bread in an anal-retentive grid pattern on the black floor. After that he gives each loaf a dusting of white flour. Meanwhile Orlin watches from the darkness as he goes about his duties. The setup alone takes about ten minutes, accompanied by Steve Barsotti’s haunting sound collages of breathing, droning, and buzzing noises.

No sooner does Wilson stop to admire his work than Orlin begins pacing furiously on the other side of the grid, trying to divert his attention. But Wilson is unmoved, so focused is he on his own creation. So Orlin inconsiderately enters the grid, nudging a loaf here and there with her foot, disrupting his work–and his life. Wilson’s response is to confront her, but meekly. He puts one loaf back in place, then sits back down to look over his work. Furious, Orlin grabs Wilson’s bucket and begins to sift flour over him until he’s covered with the stuff, the flour creating an anthill on top of his bald head. Wilson is wholly passive; his only response is to check his watch.

Nothing stops the relentless Orlin, who continues to tempt him, this time with a handful of roses, which she offers him when they meet in the middle of the grid. This is a confrontation between passion, as symbolized by the roses in her hand and her anxious aggression, and control, as represented by Wilson’s reserve. In this case, passion wins. With a violent motion he takes a bite of the roses and angrily spits the petals in her face–somewhat shocking, because this is the first time Wilson has reacted to her constant baiting. Torn bits of blood red petals settle in the dust on the floor.

In frustration, Wilson slaps the back wall. Orlin rushes up to him and slams his back against it. The score, which up until this point has been breathing and droning, becomes increasingly percussive. Over and over Orlin slams Wilson against the wall. Slowly, however, the movement turns into something else: she’s using him as a stepping-stone of sorts to get to a pair of roses on a shelf way above his head.

Once Orlin gets the flowers, for one brief moment it looks as though the two of them might achieve some sort of romantic peace. Wilson leans into her as if to kiss her, but then his attention is caught by two loaves of fresh, browned bread on an even higher shelf. He climbs up a pole and tosses them down to her. Reluctantly, she gives them back to him. He walks into the center of the grid, sits down, and begins to pick at the new loaves. In the meantime Orlin goes around the stage gathering up the other loaves and stacking them against the back wall–essentially destroying Wilson’s grid, his very essence.

Because Orlin’s movements are so strong and dramatic, our attention remains mostly on her. It isn’t until Wilson takes off his shoes that we notice he’s been fashioning a pair of slippers out of the loaves. But unlike the shoes at the end of At the Drop of a Hat . . . Wilson’s slippers are comfortable. They’re soft and fit perfectly. He seems relieved as he begins to make his way out of the dusty ruins.

But he doesn’t get far. When Orlin approaches him, he surrenders the bread-slippers to her. Left with nothing, he wanders desolately off the stage. She stands alone, cradling the slippers in her arms. Suddenly she begins to tear at them, until her cheeks are swollen with bread.

The visual imagery in both At the Drop of a Hat . . . and Please, Consider Me a Dream is fantastic. This work is fresh, original–and smart.

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