Goat Island

at the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ, through October 16

Insisting that “process is as important as product” is usually a cop-out. Producers use it as an excuse to workshop “works in progress” they have no intention of staging. And artists invoke the holy name of “process” to excuse flawed pieces they don’t have the will or skill or inspiration to carry to term.

The Goat Island performance group is obsessed with process, yet their shows–however eccentric, obscure, or oddly structured–are solid, rich, and resonant, as moving as the best of Chicago theater. Their insistence on process is not a defense mechanism used to ward off criticism but a genuine act of faith, a willingness to follow wherever their artistic whimsy might lead. And they continue this process long after the “finished” show has been performed for the public.

That’s part of what I gleaned two summers ago when I hung around Goat Island’s rehearsals, watching them slowly assemble the show that became Its Shifting, Hank. The Goats themselves restate this faith (in more words) in their fascinating self-published booklet, “The Goat Island Hankbook: Process and Performance of It’s Shifting, Hank.” Here we learn, for example, that one of the show’s repeated gestures–a performer falls to the floor, one arm under the body, the other arching out from the shoulder, one leg bent at the knee and pointed upward–is based on a photo of a runner who’d fallen while competing with American athlete Mary Decker. A related movement, an exaggerated temper tantrum, clearly refers to Decker’s own tantrum at the 1988 Olympics. Yet another series of movements are based on the way Secret Service agents carried President Bush after his famous vomiting episode in Japan. We learn that director Lin Hixson and company based other movements on scenes from Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, the drowning scene in Sometimes a Great Notion, and illustrations from such sources as a physics textbook and a Red Cross water safety handbook.

The result is a two-hour performance in which the Goats–Karen Christopher, Matthew Goulish, and Greg and Timothy McCain–perform choreographed movements, act out scenes lifted from movies or based on Ezra Pound’s writing, and engage in the company’s trademark ritual ordeals. At various moments the performers hold their breath for uncomfortable lengths of time, and at the climax of the performance they crawl crawdaddy-style the width of their performance space, the gym at the Wellington Avenue Church, again and again until they literally drop.

The first time I saw It’s Shifting, Hank, in an open rehearsal, I was utterly baffled. A few scenes were engaging theatrically–notably a satirical sequence in which Pound’s maddest, most anti-Semitic radio speeches were edited into scenes from To Sir With Love and Blackboard Jungle. But I could not see how a series of apparently unconnected moments could be construed as a unified performance. Then, one afternoon while riding the el, I began to see how the performance fit together, however obliquely. Goat Island’s ritual ordeals were related to the fascist indoctrination scenes. More important, somehow the drowning sequence and the scenes in which characters spoke to dead relatives answered what Hixson had always said was the principal question of the piece: “Why were you in pain in such a beautiful place?”

In the year since It’s Shifting, Hank was last performed in Chicago, Goat Island has continued to rehearse and refine the show, taking it on tour in Europe. (In Switzerland they had the galvanizing experience of performing a show that discussed Pound’s collaborations with the Italian fascists in front of an audience increasingly preoccupied with the growing power of the right, of neo-fascists in Germany, France, and England.) And on my third viewing of It’s Shifting, Hank, last Saturday, the piece seemed as coherent and strongly structured as it had originally seemed chaotic and disordered. Part of this, I’m sure, is that I’m learning how to “read” Goat Island’s highly idiosyncratic performance language. I’ve learned how to find patterns in the apparent noise, the ways the choreographed sequences imitate images of godlike athletes from Riefenstahl’s documentary about the 1936 Berlin Olympics and how these images relate to Pound’s rantings.

But the work itself has changed too. At least one song has been added, and the show is tighter and more graceful. Gone is the discontinuity I found so distracting 18 months ago; each sequence flowed naturally into the next. The performances were sharper and more self-assured.

All of the Goats have theatrical backgrounds. Goulish and the McCain brothers studied improvisation with Del Close, and Christopher used to be a regular cast member in the Neo-Futurists’ Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind and remains an active offstage ensemble member. Yet it wasn’t until this most recent performance that they were able to display the full range of their training. During the early part of the show, when the Goats perform various enigmatic gestures and dance sequences, their faces are stoic and impassive. But halfway through, when Goulish announces the first theatrical sequence with a teacher’s roll call, their faces suddenly become expressive.

Correspondingly, the dancelike sequences become progressively looser, less mechanical, more painfully human, culminating in the work’s triple climax: the elbow crawl (during which we genuinely feel for the performers’ genuine pain); Goulish’s performance of Pound’s confession that he collaborated with Mussolini with the best intentions, to create a perfect world; and the McCain brothers’ re-creation of the drowning scene from Sometimes a Great Notion.

There can be no stronger proof of Goat Island’s process-oriented performance than the fact that their product continues to evolve and improve with time.

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