at Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ

October 9-11 and 16-18

There’s a story about how kangaroos got their name–I don’t know if it’s true. Some European explorers in Australia would get very excited every time they saw a kangaroo, pointing and talking among themselves. The aborigines, noticing, would ask each other, “What’s he saying?”–which sounded to the Europeans like “kangaroo.” So the Europeans decided that “kangaroo” was the word for this large, jumping rabbit/mouse.

In life and art there are experiences for which we lack a context or frame of reference. But just by asking “What’s that?” and “What’s he/she saying?” we create a name for something that hitherto had no name–and in naming things we brand them, give them form, and make them real. Language puts experience into a context.

Goat Island’s 1989 We Got a Date, directed by Lin Hixson, seems to raise many questions that are answered, if obscurely, in the asking. The work addresses the way in which memory and experience work together to create the people we become. The older we get, the more we frame our past to suit who we feel we must be. According to psychologist Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance, people seek to rationalize unfavorable life experiences in order to live with their own mistakes and with circumstances beyond their control.

The text and choreography in We Got a Date are full of iconography–pointing fingers, for example. Like the people Festinger’s theory describes and like the European explorer looking for a name for a strange beast, Hixson seeks to interpret, to contextualize, the often traumatic circumstances described in the texts. We see and hear the performers running, speaking, and posing, we hear music, and all of it’s strung together, at times incongruously and at other times woven into something like a dance or march.

The Goat Island performers–Timothy McCain, Greg McCain, Karen Christopher, and Matthew Goulish–begin We Got a Date (Goat Island performs the 1991 Can’t Take Johnny to the Funeral this weekend) dressed identically in white T-shirts, navy blue gym shorts, white socks, and brown shoes. Standing at one end of the space in a row they begin a series of bends and hops, each one doing the same motions as the others though on a different timetable and in a slightly varied order. Some throw themselves down to the floor, then stop, bend forward, stop, rise, point a finger, and freeze. Some poses are reminiscent of rugby or football. The performers turn on cassettes themselves, lower the lights themselves, breaking the barrier of the fourth wall. Autobiographical texts as well as texts borrowed from 60 Minutes, the Army-McCarthy hearings, and Sidney Zion are added to the choreography at intervals.

Over and over again the performers assume poses, then break from them into an urgent run around the audience and back to where they started from. It seems as though every pose frames a question–which might provide an answer, which might ultimately entrap the performer, whether that entrapment is real or imagined. To begin to commit to any catharsis is so terrifying it provokes escape. The performers, caught in a hellish eternal moment, are condemned to repeat, reinterpreting in a kind of ponderous Mobius strip a pose, a run, a fall, a pointing finger, a bastardization of classic Indian dance, jitterbug steps, even the “no place like home” clicking of the heels from The Wizard of Oz.

There is no discernible story in We Got a Date. Everyone seems caught in a pivotal moment that each performer struggles to actualize in his or her own way. One performer recounts an incident concerning a dachshund, another a rather strange “date” more like a barroom pick-up; Goulish acts as Roy Cohn, interrogated first regarding the exact number of communist subversives in the U.S., then on the question of his sexual orientation, then on the question of the disease that consumes him. The stories overlap and return throughout. Denial and ambivalence abound as performers ask questions, answer the questions, change roles, and ask again.

The audience, surrounding the performers in a rectangular single row like spectators around a football or soccer field, act like a silent Greek chorus or jury. The lights are clamped on T-shaped pipes on stands placed on the long sides of the rectangle. The way these lights are mounted makes them look like crosses or gallows. The audience is unwittingly included in the unfolding drama–silent witnesses. By silently watching we participate. There is no way we can avoid being a part of life. Just by being there, we’re culpable.

The Goat Island performers make contact with each other without recognition, touch each other without warmth or tenderness. The only passion revealed seems to be anger–as though they were the only survivors of a regime of chaos and cruelty. Why would a perfectly able actor choose not to act, an able performer choose not to perform? The concentration each possesses, devoid of emotion, seems to drive the starkness of the text and movements home.

The McCain brothers are tall, beefy actors, possessed of an almost studied adolescent absentmindedness. Each squints as he gazes, as though he were farsighted, as though he might shoot an eagle out of the sky if it got in his light. With her bobbed hair and Iowa farm-girl seriousness, Christopher looks as though she’s dropped out of an audition for a Little Rascals movie. Goulish’s face is fixed, as if he’s in a state of perpetual shock. His huge eyes and gaunt, ascetic face give him a presence that makes him quite believable as the amoral and iconoclastic Cohn. Except for the brothers, the performers bear almost no physical resemblance to each other. Yet text and choreography meld them together as they ask and ask again, and recount their stories.

Just as Goat Island seeks to frame unnameable questions and experiences in We Got a Date, so its artistic purposes and means lie beyond our usual contexts. Goat Island comes from a certain tradition–the Judson Church movement of the 60s–but uses it as a springboard to something else. Imagine asking a group of basketball players to dance Swan Lake or a group of dancers to play basketball–it’s the incongruity of dynamics in Goat Island that somehow rivets our attention. This disparate group creates a moving, breathing, living painting out of bodies, text, and voices. We Got a Date is heroic, mysterious, melancholy, a little frightening at times, and earnest–Goat Island has carved a curious and unique niche in the world of performance.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert C.V. Lieberman.