The second weekend of Northwest New Works (NWNW) at On the Boards continued to deliver an eclectic and stimulating blend of contemporary performance art. The mainstage showing on Saturday, June 14, featured theater/dance performance art fusion by David Schmader and Hand2Mouth, as well as exquisite dance works by Coleman Pester and Molly Sides. All conceptually well-developed, each work took the viewer on a mini-journey into its own world. Multi-disciplinary elements such as lighting, sound, and set design all meshed to make each piece a cohesive whole.
Seattle’s David Schmader opened the evening with We Can All See Your Lips Move, a self-reflective monologue questioning the role of spontaneity in storytelling. His central query became “Should the storyteller act like he just made it up on the spot?” Wearing a business suit and tie, Schmader entered the space and missed his spotlight. The curtains half closed on him, and he immediately addressed the audience, asking if he could just start over again. Schmader often made it intriguingly unclear whether his false starts and flubs were genuine or written into the script. At one point Schmader asked an audience member to pick a story topic out of his pocket, then demonstrated a spontaneously created story, in the persona of a “Sporty Improviser.” After a sudden blackout, Seattle’s iconic bio queen, Cherdonna (Jody Kuehner), replaced Schmader. Trapped inside a lip sync that she could no longer control, Cherdonna fell to the floor and tried to stand up, her long legs flailing to hilarious effect. By the end, she regained command of the arena, appropriately lip syncing PJ Harvey’s “50 ft Queenie” to peals of laughter.
Coleman Pester created and performed the stark Three perspectives in one space in collaboration with dancers Victoria Jacobs and Shannon Stewart. A monolithic scaffolding structure inhabited a quarter of the stage—one of the work’s three perspectives, along with the dancers themselves and the live musician generating a soundscape in the opposite corner of the stage. The dancers’ faces were expressionless and their costumes mimicked the steel grey of the structure; the synthesized musical score (performed by Nico Tower) provided no lyricism either. The three dancers manipulated each other like floppy puppets, seamlessly gliding in and out of the floor. Jacobs and Stewart proved themselves just as comfortable in inversions as they were standing upright, although their stop-and-go pacing felt stilted by the end. Though the lighting of the scaffolding structure created beautiful geometrical shadows on the floor, a set piece of this size demanded to be addressed more explicitly. It seemed the dancers would eventually continue the whirlwind of lifts and gravity-defying rises by actually climbing in and onto the structure, but they only fleetingly acknowledged the skyscraper as it loomed over them.
Portland’s Hand2Mouth (Julie Hammond, Liz Hayden, Erin Leddy, and Maesie Speer) delivered the aptly titled Pep Talk and had the audience bursting with side-splitting laughter. Scene design by Peter Ksander included giant text projected onto the backdrop, two monitors hooked up to bulky computers, and circles taped on the floor in the style of a wrestling arena. The performers improvised in the form of stereotypical athletics coaches, using exaggerated facial expressions of determination and adulation, and gesturing pointedly to their eyes and back at the audience. Costumes by Kate Fenker (visors, tall socks, and high-cut athletic shorts), along with the performers’ liberal use of “goddamn,” further called to mind the archetypal coaches of the 70s or 80s. The coaches recreated Al Davis’s famous pep talk he delivered to the Oakland Raiders, breaking down his rhetoric into four distinct “Steps to Making a Great Pep Talk.” The performers then directed the audience to remember a time in their lives when they had received an especially motivating speech, and typed the viewer’s responses on the computer. After several viewers failed to recall the name of a coach, the screens displayed, “Seattle, you need a goddamn pep talk.” Superficially slapstick and genuinely comical throughout, the piece turned insightful by the end, a reminder that overly-exaggerated words of support can, over time, take on lasting poignancy.
I Once Was My Father, by Seattle-based Molly Sides, wrapped up the evening. Sides, lying prone under a starry sky, gradually began to undulate below a microphone hanging from a long cord. Projected video by Brit Zerbo morphed into mesmerizing waves of granulated liquid and paint splatters of fading color, providing a stunning visual landscape for Sides’ intricate footwork and spine articulations. As Sides advanced through pained hand gestures and facial expressions connoting drowning, she broke into periodical vocalizations that culminated in a deconstructed song. Her progression along the diagonal called to mind a spiritual journey or coming to terms with an issue. “I’m so happy that you’ve been here with me,” was her heartwarming refrain, referencing a father whose presence she can feel, although he has never seen the dance.
While both types of pieces presented—entertaining performance art and serious, thoughtful dance—are individually striking, their pairing made for a slightly jarring show that toggled the audience’s focus from one style to the next. Regardless, NWNW Festival curators showcased four high-caliber local artists whose independent projects are all well worth following.
Follow David Schmader on Twitter @davidschmader. You can catch his upcoming solo play A Short-Term Solution to a Long-Term Problem this August at the Intiman Theater HERE.
More information about Coleman Pester is available here: Tectonic Marrow Society.
To keep updated on the goings-on of Portland’s Hand2Mouth, see HERE.
More about sound/movement/film artist Molly Sides.