Saturday, October 19, 2019

The Second Woman at BAM - not a review!

Alia Shawkat live on the left, broadcast on the right

The winter/spring season has started at BAM, with the new curator David Binder. Great expectations! Joseph V Melillo brought shows with a constant quality to BAM: those that weren't good were excellent. OK, they were a few misfires, but few, so very few. Walked out on maybe 3 out of 100s of shows over the years.

The Second Woman is the first staged show of the season. Created by Nat Randall and Anna Breckon, two outstanding women that do a bunch of other things in the show too.

A red box. Neon signs reads "The Second Woman", the decor is 60s/70s living room, including liquor caddy. A woman walks in, Alia Shawkat, in a beautiful red dress and stilettos. Excitement! She's pulpy, topped with a Geena Rowland style blond wig. Two camerapeople sit outside the box, filming. Image is projected on a screen next to the box.
The camerapeople get up, she gets up from her seat and goes and stands in the corner. Man walks in. Kisses her. They talk. Voices are not amplified, hard to understand. The dialogue, apparently, is inspired by Cassavetes' Opening Night. She expresses her insecurities. The man replies, pretending to reassure her, but not really. She throws noodle dish at him. Then puts music on. They dance. She tries to drag the man down to the floor. He won't. She offers him $20 (says in an article $50, and that's what the men get paid for their performance, but I saw $20, maybe fee went down) and he leaves.

That's the basic scene that gets repeated over and over.  Over 24 hours. 100 men. The men are non actors, cast locally. Her dialogue is always the same. The men have a bit more leeway. They can choose between a few options, the most important one being their reaction when she says: "and I love you": they're all uncomfortable by the expectation she sets they respond. They either say: 'and you love me', or "I love you too". The last line has a similar weight: either "I love you", "I've always loved you", "I never loved you anyway"  She is the perfect woman according to stereopical men's expectations: beautiful, sexy, submissive, insecure. But then her sexuality, her insecurities get too much when she tries to drag them to the floor: she has to be beautiful, sexy,  submissive, insecure but within pre established parameters. She says: You don't think I'm capable when that's all I want to be, I just want to be capable. Well, that's exactly what she is not expected to be.

The purpose is clearly to subvert gender definitions. But this feminist show has 1 female actor for 100 male performers! Almost as bad as the Lehman Trilogy!  (winking face here)

The images shot by the camerapeople  are edited live, turning the theater scene into a film scene with alternating close ups, details, wider shots. Visually, the show is stunning. Visually, Shawkat is stunning.

The tension between the two forms, theater and film, is stimulating. The time conventions are different. On stage, normally, time elapses only when the actors are not on stage. The scene acted out here is neither theater nor cinema. It's too short to be either. And that's fine. The actors go through the motion, the woman reacting to each man, often aping him, or at least taking clues for her behavior from theirs. But their acting is not theater acting nor cinematic. It's a different form, not unlike Lepage's 10 hr show Lipsynch also at BAM.

The men are old, young, different ethnicities. One is gay, another is a woman. The repetition of the action, the improvised differences, Shawkat's comedy makes for humor that lacks subtlety.

As the dialogue is nearly fixed, it is the physical aspect of the scene that changes: the way he opens the bag of Chinese food, the way she throws the noodles, their dance. Sometimes he takes the $20, sometimes he doesn't. She's often playful, which antagonizes the agonizing content of the dialogue.

After over 23 hrs on stage, she's still going strong. Alert. Responsive. Spontaneous. It's astonishing. It's actually better because she's looser, and so are the interactions. Over twenty-three hours into the show, she danced a cancan, and these legs were going high up in the air, no cheating. She was also still wearing her stilettos, when her feet must have been jam. There must have been bloody toes constrained in these contraptions. Maybe that kept her awake! But when she went to the floor, she was lying down flat, and thinking: soon, soon I'll be in my bed. And got up again.

Alia Shawkat still going strong after over 23hrs on stage

Here I conclude: it's a compelling show. Pfew! Expectations are not let down. The experimental aspect, the visuals satisfy the curious mind. Somehow the show could be better, the relation between the dialogue and the action could be more meaningful. A piano accompaniment punctuates the series of scenes, and also plays before the show starts. It's intense, repetitive to obsession. Most apt. So is the music track for the dance,  Aura's "A taste of love".

Interestingly, the relationship to the audience plays an important part in the show: how long will people stay? how do they decide when to leave? When to come back? Somehow their lives are brought into the space, whether they took a break to go to the gym or to make love. There is also time to think, to chat in between iterations. The audience is markedly younger on average than the usual BAM theater audience, and many are friends of the male performers, or the male performers themselves. A ticket will get you a red ribbon around your wrist, - you're not supposed to shower for 24 hrs, I guess. At one point, I took a break, went to the bar:
A beer, a glass of white wine and a bag of cookies.
31.50, says the employee, without blinking. The bag of cookies is teeny tiny, like 5 crumbs.
Dollars? I ask.
She does not smile.
It does include these BAM reusable tumblers, so I guess I'll be saving on my next drinks when I bring my own brand of mescal or armagnac in my pre bought tumbler.
I know, this last part is not all that serious or relevant, but it's an experiential blog! I can be serious too, see here.

Written - fast and furiously by -  Arabella H. von Arx

It is entitled "not a review" because the format does not follow the regular review, or essay or article, structure, with their introduction, development, conclusion. It's looser, more spontaneous and aims primarily at reproducing the experience rather than analyzing it.