at the Civic Center for Performing Arts

February 23-26,

In the past the Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble has sometimes seemed a little unfocused. By definition eclectic, the group has presented concerts that unleashed whole flocks of diverse choreographers. But in their recent performances at the Civic Center they limited themselves to seven strong works, all by Chicago choreographers, that by and large fell into one of two traditional camps.

One camp is headed by (but not limited to) the choreographic team of Christina Ernst and Sam Watson, who tend to explore in their dances a single movement idea or one abstract, almost platonic concept–as in their most recent work, Color. Although generally very inventive, the result can at times seem rather limited, more like an exercise or a sketch than a completed dance with a distinct purpose.

The other camp, featuring most prominently Timothy O’Slynne and Mary Ward, gives movement a very clear context–a dramatic situation, often complete with characters and a narrative. Such dances, when they work, can be more immediately satisfying. Ward’s Fallen Angels, for example, has a clear structure and a dramatic purpose–to establish the dreams of three distinct characters–underlying the structure and the movement.

There’s no question, however, that O’Slynne’s evening-length work, What Are We Going to Do With Mary? or, The Schizophrenzia of Preston Carlisle, dominated the Civic engagement this year, not only because of its length but because of its power. This “murder mystery” in two acts is brilliant, perverse, violent, hilarious, threatening–and incomplete. Brilliantly set up in the first act, it falls apart in the second. (Fallen Angels, a less ambitious work, holds together much better.) Yet part of Mary’s power is that it’s a rough collage–part cartoonish musical comedy, part realistic southern-style narrative, and part deeply felt exploration of an emotional landscape.

You don’t need to have read the program to see that Preston Carlisle (O’Slynne) has gone off the deep end. The dance opens with Carlisle seated centerstage, almost in the dark, singing “The Tennessee Waltz” in a cracked voice that slows and stutters like a broken record, and finally degenerates into something like hiccups. Then Carlisle erupts into a spotlight, his shirt twisted, his face awry, to perform a series of percussive, fractured moves, all abrupt angles. If a cubist painting were to come to life, it would move and sound like this. Carlisle here is both ancient and infantile–he pounds the floor like a toddler in a rage yet hobbles, palsied and crippled, to the side of the stage to deliver his monologue.

First he has to wait for the music to end. He sits smoking, bobbing his head to the pounding beat–which sounds on the verge of being out of control (the original score, by Paul Solberg, is perfect throughout)–then suddenly shouts, “Turn that damn music off!” It stops and everyone laughs; the mood shifts instantly. Charm is absolutely necessary in this first act, it must help establish the audience’s bond with this crazy man; and it’s part of the true charm of this work that Carlisle so often appeals to the audience, breaking the bonds of dramatic convention and inviting us to join him–or threatening us.

It turns out that Carlisle is something of a comedian and old-fashioned southern raconteur as he begins to tell his story. He fell in love with Mary (Mary Ward) in high school, along with every other guy in the school, but Mary has a hankering for Driver Goodbody (Brian Jeffery), whom all the girls want. She marries Carlisle anyway–Carlisle’s family has money–then may or may not scheme to kill him. But Mary is the one who ends up dead, and the mystery is, who killed her and why?

This is the stuff of melodrama, and it’s sometimes played that way, but for the dance to have any psychological impact we must also understand Carlisle’s grief at Mary’s death. That means we have to know Mary and believe that she is as desirable as everyone onstage thinks she is. In the second scene O’Slynne has devised a dance for Mary that fully establishes her character: small steps, head down, offer us a believable high school girl, bashful and apparently meek, but later her powerful limbs and mastery of the space around her, the seductive rolls of her torso, show us she’s also strong and sensual. And cruel, perhaps: she opens her arms out–one, two–like switchblades.

In the third scene, called “Razor Tongues,” O’Slynne places Mary in a distinctively adolescent context: highly sexual and competitive, sometimes rather silly and trivial emotionally, but very poignant. Mary and two other girls, Sugar Malone (Joanne Barrett) and Stella Starbuck (Melissa Thodos), compete for the attention of Goodbody–who laps it all up. In this adolescent mating dance the characters advance and withdraw, show off to and seduce each other, make sexual offers that are rescinded as easily and thoughtlessly as they’re given. Just like high school.

The fourth scene captures early middle age. Called “The Dinner Party,” it brings into play the cast of supporting characters–the townsfolk who give the tale a social context and, in the second act, apply the social norms. It’s necessary that they be corrupt themselves, like the triangle at the core of the drama, but not entirely real. And O’Slynne supplies us with some wicked stereotypes as each character is announced at the dinner party. The local politician (Sam Watson) wears an idiotic smile so big you can’t believe his face can contain it; his handshake nearly vibrates the victim off his or her feet. The unfulfilled Widow Smitin (Tara Mitton)–her husband died on their wedding night–enters, licks her forefinger, and makes a deft, obscene sign of the cross, indicating her crotch and each nipple in turn. As the dinner party comes to a close someone is killed, but we’re not quite sure who it is.

A repeated theme, usually played for laughs, in Carlisle’s first-act narrative is “counting your blessings,” also known as “not thinking about negative things.” All those injunctions are forgotten in the second act, which is decidedly not nice. The introduction late in the first act of a new character, Violet the maid (Christina Ernst), sets the tone for the second: Violet is a sexual slave (in a comic motif), the kind of creature who exists only to fulfill fantasies. In a suggestive scene she wields an ashtray, trying to catch the dinner guests’ tossed cigarettes–it’s a game, it’s funny, but it ends with her standing helplessly in a hall of lit cigarette butts, a human receptacle for human waste.

The lurid sexual imagination hinted at in the first act comes into full flower in the second–it suggests voyeurism, masochism, and fetishism, and the dancers are dressed in costumes straight from the bordello. The last scene is called “The Nightmare,” but in fact the whole second act has a nightmarish quality: Carlisle is accused and found guilty; he’s tortured by his “friends,” who seem to lead him to a revived Mary; he’s reviled by them–they circle him, spitting out a virulent gibberish much worse than intelligible profanity, while he lies curled and helpless on the floor.

O’Slynne’s imagery here is richly suggestive, from the dinner table held by the dancers that twirls and spins and dips vertiginously like a boat in high seas to the line of seated dancers who point legs, arms, hands, and feet accusingly at Carlisle. But for all its power, the last act is not a total success. For one thing, it’s too short, and relies too much on the shock value of unraveling the “mystery”–it’s not a shock, there are plenty of hints. The scenes, so distinct in the first act, are nearly indistinguishable in the second, and they have little logical progression. And there’s a lack of continuity–in tone and theme–with the first act. O’Slynne’s marvelously rich comic persona virtually disappears, and so does the seriocomic treatment of madness and murder. Instead there’s a lot of punishment; but the crime does not seem to be murder–it’s sexual deviance. But that’s all it is, and deviance, no matter how you slice it, is not murder.

Ward is wonderfully regal and mysterious as Mary, Jeffery is appropriately physical as Goodbody (though he looks far too sweet for the dastardly side of his role), and the piece would be unimaginable without O’Slynne as Carlisle. O’Slynne’s vigor, his almost manic comic gifts, his odd, intelligent, rooster-shaped head, both handsome and eccentric, are what really set this production apart, though all the CRDE members here looked good, danced well, and seemed to be having a hell of a time.

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