A Solstice Tale


Copyright Kathy Biehl 1998. All rights reserved.

I marked the Summer Solstice with a weekend of total theater (and elemental) immersion.

It began with a two and a half hour round trip subway excursion to the doors of the Public Theater (across from a great tapas bar with Orange-Show-like decor, including a hand-mirror-lined column that explodes into a super mega mega bouquet of plastic flowers), where free tickets are handed out daily to that evening's Shakespeare in the Park Festival production. Had it actually been Shakespeare (and July), the production would have been Cymbeline, but as it wasn't (and June), it was Thornton Wilder's Skin of Our Teeth, starring John Goodman, Frances Conroy and Kristen Johnston from "Third Rock from the Sun."

Friday evening was magical. The air was cool; the breeze was light. The Delacourte theater is in the middle of Central Park, near Turtle Pond, which would have been a Quiet Zone as designated if a trio of young adults hadn't launched a stupid and heated argument over one of them helping herself to another's cellular phone. The theater is open air, topped only by a web of steel cords that support humongous scary looking lights, with uncomfortably narrow metal theater seats, a terrific sound system that approximated sensurround, and gnats. Lots of gnats.

Highlights of the play were the long-necked dinosaur in the first act, a bear riding in a roller chair and John Goodman's wireless mike shorting out in the second act, and Goodman tossing off "No prob, bro'" when the "actor" playing son Henry/Cain apologizes after breaking character and trying to strangle his stage father.

Which is not to sell the performances short; they were all good, although Ms. Johnston's was a little one-note (literally; she found a pitch she liked and mostly stayed there.) The most powerful moment came from Frances Conroy, who was quietly constant in the role of George Antrobus' quietly constant wife. The show peaked, as far as I was concerned, with her delivery of Mrs. Antrobus' updated speech about what a woman knows. We aren't what the magazines or the movies or television say we are; we are our selves. I would have endured the ticket-gathering commute just to hear that.

Saturday, after enjoying upscale Mexican food and something close to margaritas at TriBeCa spot that takes the Chuy's design approach and replaces kitsch with everso sophisticated Art sensibilities, four of us  visited a converted furniture showroom a block away from the Holland Tunnel for a performance art and installation title "A Woman's Work is Never Done." Here is how performance art in NY differs from performance art in Houston:

1. Lots of people and foundations and corporations support it.

2. Lots of people attend it.

3. It is by definition Meaningful, Profound, and worthy of applause and praise, whether it really is or not.

The piece did have a philosophical framework, but you couldn't find it in the installation. It was only in the fine print, on the program. The audience assembled in a room with children's drawings about Pandora's box, a bunch of boxes, some Nancy Drew mysteries, and a window display draped and filled with net, in which someone gradually appeared to be moving. (That one was omitted from the fine print. Beats me.) There was no ventilation. No moving air. As the crowd grew, there was no air at all. Some among us began to fear that we would spend the first 35 minutes of the program in this tiny space, until all remaining air and energy were sucked from our beings and we slowly closed our eyes and slumped into a heap of humanity.

But no, we were released to the main portion, a Memory Museum stuffed with actual artifacts from real lives, to demonstrate the image of Woman that's been with our society since the 50s. Grocery lists were hanging from the ceiling. Displays focused on sewing, and cooking, and wedding rituals, and hats, and clothes. Constantly changing performances were happening all over the space. A woman in June Cleaver drag made chocolate mousse at the doorway. Another woman washed the floor and answered the phone. Another placed photos in an album. Or wrapped gifts. Or sat in a chair and read an article out loud. Or did Slimnastics. Or made cookies. Or yelled, "Jesus Christ! Am I the only one who cleans up this shit?" to knowing smiles all around. Or slowly, mesmerizingly, pulled endless ribbon from one nipple to the floor and then the other, and then back again, until she had retrieved yards and yards and yards, which she crocheted on an oversized hook. Or urged her kids to hold their arms out and all chant, "Daddy, come home." I thought some young women in black wearing headsets and seated on an upper level were going to be phone sex workers, but it turned out that they were running tech.

This area also had an alcove littered with visitors' handwritten scribblings of things their mothers had said. Some were predictable ("Clean your room"). Others were not ("Are you saying it's our fault you’re gay?" "A lady never buys her own dope.") "Don't go outside without a slip unless it's 100 degrees out," I wrote. My sister scribbled a threat to wash our mouths out with soap. An avalanche loosened in both of us. She returned to the alcove repeatedly and scrawled each memory as it surfaced. Mine just ran through my head until I told them to go away.

Fortunately, it was time for the next segment. We were shepherded through a corridor with darkly lit, dead trees, a leaf-strewn bed, video monitors and a Rilke quote (which didn't have any discernible connection to the theme unless you read the program, and even then only tenuously) to a theater for the Eve Cabaret, which one publication had touted as "hysterically funny." A bunch of women in breast and pubic hair enhanced body suits acted out the story of Adam and Eve and chomped on apples. I did so want to like it. The Tree of Knowledge was lined with little white Christmas lights. The top of the stage was lined with big, smiling 3d suns and moons from the Archie McPhee catalog. The walls were lined with a Girl Scout troop's drawings of Adam and Eve (in one, Adam wore a t-shirt from The Gap.) But the room, and the script, could have used a blast of fresh air.

Next came an examination of presentation of women. The first part was a corridor. Peepholes had been cut on the left, high and low, so we could peer into the dressing room. (Yup. The actual, in-use dressing room.) On the right were red cocktail dresses, displays of makeup and accessories, and lots of photos of a Japanese glamor queen at various ages. At the end was an altar to makeup and perfume, in an alcove lined with broken mirrors. This I wanted, loudly.

The last part was a cafe-cabaret, which was patterned after late 19th century Parisian cafe society, where performers had signature means of movement and expression for which they were known. Unfortunately, I didn't know this till I read the program on the subway home, and so what I saw was one woman after another moving aimlessly in time to music. Finally one displayed some wit, starting to sing "Falling in Love Again" again and again, stopping each time after "falling" and dropping some part of her elaborately draped costume. One of the head honchettes did a weird gymnastic dance that ended in a handstand, with the insides of her skirts turning themselves into a beribboned dress and enormous eyes staring at the audience from the soles of her feet. The other honchette ended the proceeding by opening the midriff of her oversized gown to reveal a box blazing with big white lights. Was this a statement that Pandora's box (or its sole remaining occupant, hope) is within us all? If it took me three days to come up with this idea, probably not. The fine print didn't say anything about it.

Sunday we went back outdoors, to a park a 10 minute drive away, to the final Queens performance of the Shakespeare Project's A Winter's Tale. This project's purpose is bringing Shakespeare to parks all over the five boroughs. We weren't sure we'd found the right park until a van showed up in the grass, followed by racks of clothes and a bunch of white people. While we waited on a park bench, a tiny girl with 50 zillion braids all over her head approached carefully. "Excuse me, ma'am," she said. "Do you know what those people are doing?" "They're going to put on a play by Shakespeare," I answered. "I knew it!!!" she exclaimed and darted back to a pair of adults on a blanket several downs away.

With no sets, a chair and a few props, this production was riotous good fun, and gripping -- which was fortunate, given the ambient intrusions. Kids rode up, dumped their bikes for a while and rode off; one lingered long enough to ask me what it was and, later, which one was the king. One guy from the Project wandered out to "stage" left to quiet some rowdy youngsters and ended up sitting for the duration with them lined neatly on both sides of him. In the final act, a band of prepubescent attention-getters took to running across the front of the stage (grass section off by garden hoops) or running into center stage and taking a bow, each intrusion setting off a wave of giggling that drowned out the actors. This grew loudest in the most touching scene, when the first misguided king is presented with the "statue" of his deceased queen. As the moment approached for the statue to come to life, the actress playing Paulina the midwife salvaged the situation by stepping forward during her lines and casually pushing an offender to the ground. All hell broke loose during the curtain call, when most of the younger members stormed the stage and joined the lineup. Afterwards, they chased the guitar-playing cast member around the park and demanded songs. "Do you know any Bee Gees?" one of the kids yelled. He got a Beatles song instead.

I'm staying indoors for a while now.