Conceived and directed by Kathleen Maltese, Donna Mandel, and Patricia Pelletier

at MoMing Dance & Arts Center

October 15-18, 23-25

Three Who Travelled, a world premiere dance/performance piece produced by MoMing and the performance company Fluid Measure, offered a tantalizing but at times confusing vision of the lives of three imaginary sisters. Conceived and directed by Chicago artists Kathleen Maltese, Donna Mandel, and Patricia Pelletier, Three Who Travelled explored a delicate, fractured world inhabited by three independent yet profoundly lonely women, a world decked out in the trappings of the American dream, invested with the honesty of psychoanalysis, and protected by the safety of Mother Goose.

The piece revolves around a quest of sorts. As it opens, the three sisters (acted by Anne Altieri, Beka Calkins, and Michele Messmer) announce that the audience will witness a “test to find the real daughter.” The sisters compete playfully for our attention, often trying to upstage one another, vying for the “leading role.” More interestingly, each woman competes against an ideal self-image at once irresistible and unattainable. Societal roles–“career woman,” “wife,” and especially “mother”–loom over the sisters much as the prospect of a completed dissertation looms over a doctoral candidate.

The “test to find the real daughter” becomes a metaphorical way of exploring women’s search for authenticity. These sisters live in a world dominated by men and Mother, forces that question their authenticity and constantly demand they prove themselves. In an intelligent parallel, the kind of demand an audience makes on a performer–namely for her to prove herself–here is subsumed into this larger theme, as the actresses try desperately to “entertain.” At one point, the sisters recount personal anecdotes about their less-than-inspiring careers while trying to perform a snazzy tap dance. Just as the sisters are caught in an imaginary world that can’t quite make room for them, the actresses are caught onstage, trying to convince an audience that they know how to dance, when it’s delightfully obvious that none of them knows a ball change from a shuffle step.

The sisters continually run up against their Ideals, which are at once inspiring and debilitating. In order to overcome the restrictions that a male-dominated society imposes on them, they choose simply not to include any “real” men in their performance. The only “man” is a two-foot plywood doll pulled across the stage on a spinning wagon. “I know it’s difficult in the 80s to think of men as a metaphor,” one of the sisters explains, “but that’s what’s necessary here.”

The more difficult Ideal for them to overcome is Mother. Mother stands as the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing presence in these sisters’ lives. “How can I steal my mother’s powers?” one of the sisters asks. Yet Mother is also a repressive force, seeming to demand perfection from her daughters. “I look into my mother’s eye to see an image of myself,” another sister laments, “but all I see is an ideal.” The piece hints that the sisters will in their turn become equally domineering over their own children: the voice of Mother intermittently emanates from them, barking, “Could we not discuss this at dinner?”

As a counterpoint to the three actresses, three dancers (Lauri Macklin, Lukie Marriott, and Susan Richter-O’Connell) appear and disappear, performing loose, seemingly spontaneous routines that sometimes illuminate the action but more often muddy it. Set to low, driving music by Michael Zerang, Maltese and Mandel’s choreography is fresh and invigorating, as the dancers bounce off one another and spin languidly around the floor. However, in this piece full of intimate self-disclosure, the dancing communicated remarkably little. One striking exception is a passage in which, without explanation or introduction, one dancer suddenly finds herself trying to explain to a second dancer what the third dancer is doing. “Well, she’s spinning, and then she, uh, lifts her leg, and uh . . .” This continues until all three dancers are dancing, describing their own actions, and at the same time trying to perform each other’s actions. The dance becomes an overwhelming rush of rules and instructions, which leave the dancers unable to perform with anything resembling grace or beauty.

Three Who Travelled had a charming, childlike air, from the improvised fairy tale scenes to the bright, cardboard-cutout set by Timothy Barnes (complete with toy cars and airplanes crossing the stage at random intervals). But the piece seemed rather confused in its symbology, introducing potentially arresting figures that were often left unexplored. For example, the second half of the piece revolves around one of the Grimms’ fairy tales, “Sweetheart Roland,” which has something to do with a boy named Roland being set free by killing “the witch.” The telling of the story, physically cluttered by the use of a movable but unwieldy set, does little to illuminate the struggles of the three sisters. Is Roland the personification of liberating romantic love, or is he the “ideal man” fashioned by a patriarchal, overwhelmingly heterosexual society? The story culminates in a frantic dance, in which the witch is apparently killed, but since I had no clear conception of the witch’s or Roland’s function in the piece, her death left me confused and frustrated.

Three Who Travelled has the potential to be an extraordinary piece of theater. Pelletier’s script is engaging and candid, but its articulation was often sloppy and hesitant, as if I had walked in on the final dress rehearsal and not the opening performance. A sequence using red flashlights in the dark was so imprecise and offhand as to be almost ridiculous.

Nevertheless, those sections of the piece that were carefully staged and rigorously rehearsed were stunning. The piece ended with a breathtaking sequence in which all six women slowly paraded around the space, singing in light, resonant tones, while the suggestion of a roof was slowly lowered into place above them. At this moment, with all of the women singing, their arms raised joyously above their heads, the piece finally crystallized into a moving celebration of the communal spirit that had brought these women artists together onstage. Perhaps it was this humble yet dignified spirit that made the piece so sweet and engaging despite its obvious flaws: it did not try to impress or overwhelm but instead invited us gently in to share its imaginative world.

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