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An Intelligent and Intuitive American Parable

The premise of Dayna Hanson’s The Clay Duke is a 2010 shooting at a Florida school board meeting subsequently made famous by a 7-minute YouTube clip. The resulting performance, which ran this past weekend, December 5-8, 2013, at On the Boards, was anything but sensationalist. Throughout the evening, Hanson deconstructed and expanded upon the actual events, adding backstory, humor, absurdity, and heaps of humanity. Bits and pieces of the event emerged out of the chaos, slowly revealing the story before the evening culminated with a powerful verbatim re-enactment.

The cast of Dayna Hanson’s The Clay Duke.
Photo by Pierre Borasci

The piece was built from layered scenes in almost every performance medium. Hilarious banter debating the minutia of school uniforms. Cut to unison dance break with thumping electronic music. Cut to Dave Proscia strumming a guitar and singing his monologue from the YouTube footage. Clay Duke, the unstable assailant portrayed by Thomas Graves, arrived careening around the stage in a maniacal frenzy that shifted from laughing to anger and back again in an instant. Then entered Wade Madsen as another Clay Duke—identical down to mustache, ponytail, windbreaker, and gestural idiosyncrasies. Other characters—Duke’s wife and school board members—were fleshed out with similar depth and attention to detail. Theatricality played a heavy hand in the work, and each performer (also including Peggy Piacenza, Sarah Rudinoff, and Hanson) delivered every line and gesture with nuance and authenticity.

Hanson’s choices never ceased to be interesting: Piacenza announced every item in her handbag; Hanson’s character described a bedroom falling into a sinkhole over the telephone; and Madsen’s version of Duke moonlighted as a slithering python who eventually killed everyone. In several instances the fourth wall was broken and the cast quickly “marked” through the shooting scene and then fought because Proscia didn’t feel like performing his monologue. The “dance moves” portion of the evening was mostly confined to short dance breaks that functioned to disengage the characters from their constructed reality. The stiff and semaphore-like vocabulary was what one might imagine for a mixed cast of dancers and actors, but it succeeded in expressing a kind of fearful tedium. Each section seemed to allude to some kind of volatile vulnerability beneath the guise of a stable system.

Dayna Hanson and Thomas Graves in Hanson’s The Clay Duke
Photo by Karel Zwaneveld

The choreography wasn’t so much about the dance moves themselves, as it was the construction of the piece. Hanson layers symbolism like a first class novelist, with every non sequitur transition playing into the internal logic of the work. Symbolic moments collectively needled at some deeper truth while not fully giving up all its secrets. The Clay Duke is a brilliant example of how dance can communicate directly with the subconscious, associative part of the mind. Through non-linear storytelling, Hanson has taken a headline you might catch on the nightly news and reimagined it as a complex and deeply psychological parable of America and its economic systems. While it did start to drag a bit in the second half, Hanson’s smart intuition makes for the kind of dance that lingers on the brain long after leaving the theater, engaging both with present culture and eternal questions of humanity.

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