Michael Zerang and Kaja Overstreet

at Randolph Street Gallery

January 25 and 26

Michael Zerang’s Hot Sands and Kaja Overstreet’s Moonlight are the two works making up this double bill, and they couldn’t be more oddly matched. Zerang’s piece uses broad, grotesque, cartoonish strokes to indict our country’s swaggering military posture in the Middle East. Overstreet’s work (actually highlights from a longer piece) presents a series of curious dreamlike fragments, charmingly simple and direct. Seeing these two pieces back-to-back–being put through one’s mental paces–made for a challenging, surprising, and ultimately satisfying evening.

Hot Sands seems the less developed of the two works. In the haunting introduction, four women covered head to toe in black fabric are revealed, motionless, their backs to the audience. The women gradually begin to sway, to a droning electronic score by Paul and Michael Zerang, twisting their torsos and arms, almost as if writhing in a peaceful agony. They are always careful to keep their faces covered with their hands, as if hiding from us. Suddenly they pull their hands away, revealing faces masked except for darkly made-up eyes, watching us suspiciously. For perhaps two full minutes, these eyes alone seem to dance, squinting, darting back and forth, and sometimes wincing in pain.

The subtlety and nuances of this section make it riveting, as much a credit to Zerang’s careful direction as to the skillful performances of the women (Lydia Charaf, Kathleen Maltese, Donna Mandel, and Jean Parisi). It is an unsettling section as well, not only because of the veiled threat the women seem to offer but because they are presented in a way that teeters on the brink of stereotype: they seem mysterious, exotic, malevolent Arabs. Nonetheless, no clear point of view on these women has yet emerged.

The noise of a helicopter then appears on the sound track, and the women scurry under a bit of camouflage suspended above the back corner of the stage. Then an Arab soldier enters (Eric Leonardson), and this time the stereotype is overt: he’s shabbily dressed, with antiquated weaponry and a cheesy fake mustache. He marches downstage to a platform covered with sand, kneels before it, and rubs sand into his face, as if worshiping his piece of desert.

These opening sections are intriguing because these stereotypical figures perform tasks that seem personal and deeply felt. By keeping the point of view ambiguous, Zerang puts his audience in a difficult spot, preventing us from finding easy answers. In a sense, the piece up to this point shouldn’t work–caricatures aren’t supposed to feel, after all–and it is precisely this contradiction that gives the work strength.

With the entrance of two American soldiers (Douglas Grew and Gino De Grazia), the piece begins to unravel and the ambiguity unfortunately begins to disappear. They are typical grunts, one white and one black, arguing about patriotism, duty, and freedom, all the while brandishing their weapons in case of attack. They truly are cartoons, playing the scene broadly, without the kind of personal investment that makes the other characters interesting.

With the entrance of the Leader (Martin Stewart), the piece shows its hand fully and thereby loses much of its strength. The Leader gives a long, cynical speech about a government’s ability to control its population by making people feel that they’re part of a national identity, for which they will sacrifice nearly everything. This insightful tirade (credited to Carl Watson) links sex, death, art, advertising, and consumerism to power and control. However, the speech is so grandiose and is delivered at such breakneck speed by Stewart that it becomes overwhelming. By making so many points, the speech seems to run out of control; and the piece, which thus far has been modestly presented, suddenly feels glutted with importance.

This monologue is the least successful element of Hot Sands because no point of view works against it–there is little tension here, as there was in the opening sections, and the speech becomes simply a harangue. The action onstage during the monologue–the Arab soldier, now naked, is laid out on the downstage platform and covered in motor oil by the U.S. soldiers–literally illustrates the Leader’s speech rather than providing some critical distance from it. Had the image been allowed to stand on its own, it might have proved a more powerful ending.

In Moonlight, Overstreet seems to have a better grasp of the scope of her piece and thus it seems more whole, even though it is a series of highlights. Overstreet carefully constructs a theatrical logic that is at once nightmarish and playful. Her set–three bare mattresses hung vertically from the ceiling–creates the perfect tone. The mattresses are both silly and disturbing, stripped bare and hung like specimens before us. They also allude to sleep and dreams, and a dreamlike state pervades Overstreet’s images.

Her strongest images are those in which the performers are given concrete tasks that demand a certain level of psychological commitment or detachment. In perhaps the most successful section, a man and a woman (Frank Melcori and Overstreet) sing in utterly untrained voices about their wild, passionate love, undressing each other without the slightest hint of emotional involvement. A ghoulish man dressed as a female nurse (Richard Wold) accompanies the singers by hitting various test tubes and beakers with a metal prod.

This section is not only quite humorous, it has been thoroughly explored. Melcori and Overstreet’s dance during their mutual “seduction” seems choreographed to be as awkward as possible. Every gesture is significant–Melcori removes his socks and lays them out just so–yet everything appears entirely unrehearsed. And the presence of the nurse, watching with his devilishly sweet smile, provides not only an ironic distance from the scene but a perverse mirror for the audience as well.

Overstreet’s images throughout are remarkably strong. At one point the stage is dark, and Overstreet stands with her back to us, a flashlight strapped to her chest; she’s visible only as a silhouette. Then she slowly leans forward until she is looking at us through her legs, her face now illuminated as it floats upside down. She then picks up two long poles on top of which is mounted a plastic cast of a face, which is caught in the air by the beam of another flashlight. The image is magical.

Overstreet’s ingenuity and poker-faced style make these sections of Moonlight quite strong. Tying these disparate fragments together into a unified piece will be a difficult task, but Overstreet’s skill is great, and the finished piece should be remarkable.

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