Gonnie Heggen and Frans Poelstra

at Randolph Street Gallery

February 1 and 2

At a time when many theaters in town produce unvaried seasons, riding the tiger of subscription audiences, Randolph Street Gallery survives and thrives on defying its audience’s expectations. Two weeks ago it presented a double bill of mysterious, psychologically dense, and at times disturbing pieces by Michael Zerang and Kaja Overstreet; and last weekend RSG gave us a lighthearted poor man’s vaudeville revue by Dutch performance artists Gonnie Heggen and Frans Poelstra.

La Vache Qui Rit is an intentionally schlock-filled performance art/comedy/dance revue by two performers who seem fundamentally nonplussed by the entire affair. Indeed, it seems a mammoth effort for them to pry themselves from sleep long enough to perform. The piece begins as Heggen and Poelstra enter into the dimly lit space looking weak and dazed–barely able to remain standing, let alone walk. They are both completely naked except for heavy black shoes. They look like newly hatched chicks.

Lit only by a single inspection lamp hanging from the ceiling, the two make their way agonizingly across the stage, bumping into walls and each other every step of the way. They eventually attempt to return to sleep, huddling together against the far wall in various uncomfortable arrangements, but their unmanageable bodies seem determined to thwart them. Watching them try to negotiate their unwieldy elbows and knees is achingly funny.

Then a mop bucket is pushed onstage, and the two pull out some sopping wet clothes and proceed to put them on. The scene is grotesque and hilarious, especially since they take so much time and care to dress properly. When the wet underpants go on, it’s monumentally uncomfortable to watch. The scene is also rich psychologically: these two dimly lit figures seem suspended in a moment that is curiously reminiscent of the moment of birth.

From this point the piece lightens up considerably, becoming a series of monologues, dialogues, and dances, all of which derive their humor from the lack of material resources available. To turn the stage into an African jungle, for example, the lights are simply turned off, and Poelstra says with typical understatement, “It’s dark. It’s Africa.” When he tells us about the African sunset, a single red light shines against the back wall of the stage.

Their choreography is similarly “uninspired,” with only a single arm or leg engaged at any given moment. Once in a great while they actually hop into the air–seemingly a Herculean effort. In one of Heggen’s solos, her dancing is continually interrupted by her wandering attention: she looks at a spot on the floor or examines her wrist. It’s as if these performers don’t have the energy to fill their entire bodies with their movements, nor do they have the choreographic skill to make “real” dances. Yet the movement’s simplicity is deceptive–it’s actually quite difficult to isolate tiny sections of the body moment by moment. Because everything is performed rather offhandedly, the result is a kind of casual unison. Yet clearly their “uncommitted” performance style is not only intentional but serious work.

As a kind of framing device, the two recite a story–over which they continually disagree–about two cows. “They spend their days . . . looking around,” Poelstra tells us with a shrug. “They eat. And digest.” These cows, after “years and years and years,” finally get bored and decide to see the world. Their journey is a recurring theme in the piece, as Heggen and Poelstra, dressed in suits with stenciled cow markings, wander around the room, hitchhike, and even gallop on horseback.

The cow subplot is perhaps the evening’s thinnest material, if only because it lacks the visual and physical ingenuity that makes other sections, such as the opening, so impressive. In the work’s most successful section, Heggen enters entirely covered by a six-foot brown paper bag. It goes without saying that she can’t act her way out of it–instead she makes the bag itself act, turning it into a huge puppet. The bag nervously skitters across the stage, turning this way and that as if displaying itself to a host of fashion critics. Heggen somehow endows this monolithic yet banal object with a charming innocence, especially when the bag gets scared and tries to hide in the corner. And where, after all, can a six-foot bag hide on a blank stage?

This section delightfully bestows human qualities on a paper bag; it also makes impressive physical demands on Heggen. Perhaps two feet wide at its base, the bag gives Heggen precious little room to move her legs. How she kept from spilling over as she scurried across the stage was beyond me. And from what I could tell, her bag has no hole or screen through which she can see. To make the logistics even more complicated, Poelstra eventually enters in a bag bigger than Heggen’s, and the two bags stalk and eventually devour each other. Not only do these two performers negotiate some tricky maneuvering around the tiny stage, they do it with considerable subtlety, flipping down a bag’s corner, for instance, in a motion as coy and engaging as the batting of an eye.

The performers’ blase style is completely successful from start to finish. Poelstra is always awkward and bored, at times even a little embarrassed by his inability to feel much excitement. Heggen, though ever graceful and patient, repeatedly gives her audience looks that seem to say, “I can’t believe I’m stuck in this piece.” By not taking themselves at all seriously, Heggen and Poelstra put their audience at ease and allow us to play along with their low-budget spectacle. Yet they take their craft quite seriously–their expert execution throughout shows their commitment to their material and their audience, making for an endearing evening.