Immediately after the opening-night performance of How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? at On the Boards, stunned-looking audience members wandered over to the lobby bar, most of them for shots of straight whiskey. One of the staff members behind the bar dabbed tears from her eyes with a paper napkin and said, "I can't talk about it right now," and some audience members had tearstains on their cheeks. Sarah Wilke, managing director at On the Boards, said that tonight was the first performance in several cities—New York, San Francisco, Minneapolis—where nobody walked out during the show.
"Is that just 'Seattle nice,' I wonder?" Wilke asked. Someone else wondered whether the zero-walkout rate was due to some white-liberal fascination with black bodies (all the bodies in Ralph Lemon's piece are black, excepting one Japanese body—Lemon's lover's—which we never see, but we hear about its death).
Those might be contributing causes, but they do not explain the audience's full attention to Lemon's exquisite and challenging puzzle. Aside from a few fidgeters during a very long sobbing sequence—the audience stared at a blank stage while a woman moaned and heaved loudly offstage—the audience seemed fully devoted to figuring out what Lemon was up to.
On the Boards has given its audience a season of puzzles this year, opening with French "non-dance" iconoclast Christian Rizzo and now bringing us Lemon—an American who, like Rizzo, has gone from straight-up choreographer to post-dance conceptualist. But where Rizzo's work is airy, spare, and aloof, Lemon's is vital, grounded in flesh and death. It's embarrassing to fall back on national clichés—the tastefully detached Frenchman, the grunting American who sucks out the marrow of life—but in this case, they happen to work.
How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? is an intriguingly obscure triptych. In part one (Sunshine Room), Lemon sits and reads from a script while an enormous screen shows accompanying video. Lemon quietly and unemotionally talks about the death of his lover, and how they'd watch old Japanese films by Yasujiro Ozu (Late Spring) and Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris) while she fell asleep holding Lemon's hand. Lemon talks about a 102-year-old former sharecropper and his eightysomething wife, how he'd read to them from Walter Benjamin and film them reenacting a love scene from Solaris. (Disappointingly, Lemon uses this ancient couple as a pair of living marionettes—we learn nothing about who they are when an artist isn't hanging around, asking them to reenact moments from Russian science-fiction films.)
Lemon also talks about his previous dance work, including a long "ecstasy dance" from his Geography Trilogy, which was born when Lemon got his dancers drunk and stoned (on good whiskey and good pot) and told them to throw themselves around the rehearsal room. The film of them drunk-dancing in rehearsal, as well as performing on some public stage, is electric: The dancers spin like whirlwinds and leap like rabbits and frogs, their bodies elongated perilously as they fall to the ground. The "ecstasy dance" was not universally popular with audience members (many walked out) nor with the dancers, one of whom, Lemon tells us, could only get through the piece by chanting under his breath: "Fuck Ralph, fuck Ralph, fuck Ralph."
Also shown on the screen but not explicitly discussed: images of a black dancer being drenched with a fire hose à la Birmingham 1963, and news footage of a black man in what looks like Selma being hit by a white cop's rifle butt and falling backward—chillingly resembling the falls of Lemon's choreography.
In part two (Wall/hole), Lemon reinflicts the "ecstasy dance" on his audience and his dancers in a long passage of leaping, panting, and erotic tussling. It's the kind of dance that makes the spectator feel heavy and inert, with an itching in the legs and the arms, a longing to get up and run around the room. The dancers are condemned to move; the watchers are condemned to sit still.
Then comes the sobbing sequence: many minutes of empty stage and one woman's howling, solitary sorrow in the piece's apotheosis and most challenging moment. In almost any other performance, such spectacular, punishing sadness would be unnecessary and histrionic. But here, where Lemon has been so restrained in his discussion of age and race and death, it seems proper: a discomforting explosion of hot tears and choking cries. These bodies, these minds, these lives hurt. (The piece contains several references to Buddhism: This section could be titled The First Noble Truth: All Life Is Suffering.) Then Lemon returns to the quiet.
The crown jewel of part three (No Room) is a duet between Lemon and the sobbing woman (her throat quiet, her tears dried) beneath an enormous, ancient floodlight hanging from the ceiling. (It must be nearly as old as the sharecropper.) The dance winds down, Lemon sits on the floor, and then it's over.
What are we to make of all this? Lemon, like Rizzo, draws from a huge range of influences. The program includes nods to Pina Bausch and Merce Cunningham, Bruce Nauman and Jean-Luc Godard, plus the Buddhist story of the holy hare (who wants to sacrifice his body so a monk can eat) and the American story of Brer Rabbit (who is quoted begging his enemy Brer Fox: "Fer de Lord's sake, don't fling me in dat briar patch!"). Perhaps it's best to say that How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? is a meditation on race and death and how the human mind can simultaneously fixate on and transcend both—and leave it at that.
If How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? is cultural meditation, Vestal Virgins (a comedy at Theater Schmeater) is cultural tourism. The heavily plotty script concerns some punk-rock lady-band from the 1980s living in poor squalor, a Miley Cyrus–type pop-virgin named Little Nannakin who wants to sample one of their songs, and the manager who negotiates a deal between all the parties. Seventy minutes (and too much exposition) into the play, Nannakin bursts through the punks' door with a pistol, demanding to know which one is her mother. I didn't stick around to find out. Written (and overwritten) by Marcy Rodenborn, the production misses its mark. Vestal Virgins doesn't have the grit to help us believe in its world (and its stakes): tattoos drawn on with Sharpies, one of the punks describing her fans as "true children of discord, if you will," and another one protesting earnestly that "my uterus is not my art." Vestal Virgins feels like a cartoon, but it doesn't rise to the working-on-two-levels-at-once challenge of satire. Whatever it was meant to be, Vestal Virgins is a reach and a miss.
It's possible that Hamlet studied with Martin Luther at Wittenberg before he went home to Elsinore and everybody died. (By 1519, students were traveling to Wittenberg to hear Luther speak. The Ur-Hamlet was first performed around 1589.) Wittenberg, by David Davalos, is a playful—if overlong—thought experiment about Hamlet's college days, his relationship with the dour Dr. Luther, and his rascally physician/philosophy professor Dr. Faustus. Wittenberg gambols across the stage like a Three's Company for literature dorks, full of winks toward Hamlet, famous theologians, the history of philosophy (Faustus is a proto-Nietzschean), and constipation. (The historical Luther wrote his 95 Theses while waiting for his feces—true story.)
One of Davalos's most enlightening scenes has Dr. Faustus playing a psychological word game with young Hamlet (Faustus says a word, Hamlet replies with the first word that comes into his head): life-death, death-sleep, sleep-dream, dream-shadow, dark-tomb, light-fire, sky-cloud, cloud-camel, camel-weasel, weasel-whale, hawk-handsaw, fool-fishmonger, conscience-coward, and so on. It's a sparse and spooky tour through Hamlet's most famous soliloquies and lines, and a reminder that the little thoughts we have now might come roaring monstrously back at us in the future.
Connor Toms performs a sprightly, fresh-faced Hamlet, and Michael Patten is a comically dour, pious, and frustrated Luther. But Chad Kelderman as the impish Dr. Faustus takes the crown. Through his light, crisp performance as a man who thinks far beyond the conventions of his context (and a stoner), we can see the vivaciousness and nihilism that will come to a head when Hamlet tumbles into Hamlet. I hope to see plenty more of Chad Kelderman.