at the Theatre Building, October 15 and 16

BITE ME!!!!!

Denise LaGrassa

at Cafe Voltaire, through October 31

Atlas/Axis, a performance duo made up of Ames Hall and Ken Thompson, has created a sleek, polished, clever work whose interesting movement lacks depth–until one sets about studying the very thorough program notes. In Permanent Record they attempt to deconstruct the way in which people learn in institutionalized situations, and the program cleverly reproduces the look of blue books. But though they’ve gone to great lengths to reveal in the program not merely their bibliography (some 12 books) but all of their sources (including some that were merely considered, as well as loosely constructed “journal” entries, complete with musings on such things as smart drugs, sensory deprivation tanks, and Labanotation), much of this information might have been integrated into the performance. It was after all a performance, not a gallery exhibition with a catalog. Some of the musings in the program are so self-conscious it might have been better to throw them out to the audience and see how they’d react.

Perhaps Atlas/Axis intentionally structured Permanent Record in this way, believing that in one state of mind one takes in the performance–absorbs it, so to speak–without being privy to all the nooks and crannies of intention, and in another state of mind studies the program notes. But I can’t imagine why these quotes and musings couldn’t be used in the performance. Then Atlas/Axis could bring out the irony of a program entry on a book called Events of 1966: “The year I was born. Also the year that the movie version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf came out.” This might have eliminated the reader’s “Get over yourself!” reaction. As it stands, much of the program seems designed to call attention to the development of material–one has the sense of reading a wonderful script, of which the actor has chosen to use only a portion.

The stage is arranged like a schoolroom, with four lights hanging overhead and two old-fashioned desks with little chairs. We hear the sound of a Teletype machine, at first soft- ly, then ringingly loud–likening schools to businesses quite graphically. The two performers wear plaid, pleated school-uniform skirts, blue work shirts, white socks, and light brown work boots–costumes both funny and attractive. Hall and Thompson bear an uncanny resemblance to each other, with their identical builds, goatees, haircuts, even their baldness. In what appears to be an ESP exercise, one holds colored pencils behind his back while the other guesses the color. “It’s blue.” “Correct.” “It’s red.” “Correct.” But there’s very little spoken text. The piece mostly consists of running around the desks and engaging in syncopated and at times arhythmic dance “bits,” some done over and over stage center until the structures of the dance begin to alter with repetition.

Throughout the performance Hall’s and Thompson’s faces were fascinating to watch because one felt they’d left their personalities behind, and though their emotions were revealed in flickering expressions, it seemed the performance had made them into more or less “pure” elements–they had transcended their own form and become strokes of motion, pure energy. This was greatly exciting, so much so that I could barely contain a whoop at the end of one segment of rigorous hip-hop and what looked like football calisthenics.

They rush to their desks, tap rhythmically, jump up, chase each other, spoof a ballet exercise, prompt each other with nonsense commands, and repeat a variety of steps over and over. According to page 7 of that very comprehensive program, in an early phrase of the piece these included modern Javanese court dance, hip-hop, classical Indian dance, an African American fraternity step dance, and jitterbug. There seemed to be other movement and dance sources as well. And some of it–reminiscent of Goat Island’s intensely physical work–seemed to consist of pure running.

The most successful sections of Permanent Record were those in which the choreography had the effect of altering the performer’s demeanor. The ruthlessness I saw in Thompson’s face during the first 15 minutes of the piece had disappeared by the end, as he became more and more exhausted. Hall, on the other hand, who wore a somewhat astonished look at the outset, appeared more driven and angry by the end. It was as though they let go of some aspect of themselves. Though the conception of the piece may need tightening, the choreography was beautifully executed.

If these two accomplished performers had spoken more of their text and further experimented with dropping and picking up personas, there would be no need for a program full of explanations. In fact the joy of communicating was achingly expressed in a bit of spoken text that was the perfect antithesis of institutionalized learning, a letter from the eight-year-old Helen Keller: “Dear little blind girls I will write you a letter I do thank you for the pretty desk I did write to mother in memphis on it . . . ”

Denise LaGrassa’s one-woman performance, Bite Me!!!!!, is a charming but problematic showcase for a potpourri of characters who seem intended to emphasize LaGrassa’s premise, namely that she’s “loving for love’s sake,” as she says in her first and final free-verse monologues. However it’s obvious that this is not so much an exercise in writing as a vehicle for an actress that proves, “I can sing, I can dance, I can be a character, I can be a lead, I can be a debutante, I can be myself . . . ” LaGrassa dresses “down” in a black leotard top and baggy tapered trousers with black loafers: she seems to have taken great pains not to appear too attractive, but there’s little she can do to hide her leading-lady looks and powerful personality, which gives her what was once called “presence.”

And she really is a very good actress, with a well-modulated and articulate voice. She sings on key, even a cappella–no mean feat–but she’s put herself in material that is cute at best and soporific at worst. (I couldn’t help wondering what might have happened if she’d been directed by Atlas/Axis and forced to do a step until she was ready to drop, until something essential emerged.) Her characters range from a tough-talk- ing, crotch-grabbing, cigar-chomping man to an impoverished secretary waiting for the next issue of Vogue to a gossip, a child, and an actress willing to do anything for a part.

There are imaginative touches and some clever staging in Bite Me!!!!! But the obviously well intentioned writing is of limited scope and quality. This means the characters lack dimension and end up seeming cliches more than anything else.

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