On the cover of a large art book I picked up in Brussels, Belgium, a few years ago is a crisp image of stark black letters on a yellow background. It’s a piece by British printmaker and graphic artist Anthony Burrill, and I think of it often when viewing various forms of art in Santa Fe:
“I LIKE IT. WHAT IS IT?”
The quip ran through my head almost incessantly during Different, the newest presentation from local experimental troupe Theater Grottesco. Indeed, when asked what I thought of the performance, I say I enjoyed it—even if I didn’t always necessarily know what was going on.Still, it raised the question: Is theater communication, spectacle, art or some hybrid of the three? And what could this be considered?
That seems to be a typical response to pieces from Grottesco, which specializes in improvisation, interpretive movement and non-word vocalizations; actors work to create atmospheres rather than settings, feelings rather than stories. The relationship between actors is always key. While each participant invariably has a thick resume dotted with some of the best schools and teachers of theater and movement, what is created in the moment between folks onstage takes precedence over what we typically expect from a rehearsed piece of theater.
In Different, six women depict an adaptation of the story of Joan of Arc, written by Patrick Mehaffy, through movement, utterances and narration. I wasn’t positive what I was getting into when I sat down, and after a solemn start to the piece with performers running barefoot in all directions and relating to each other through huffs, clicks and crystalline single-note drones, I couldn’t help but wonder how I’d get through an hour of this.
But then, thank goodness, someone starts talking. We are brought to a farm in northern France, where Joan and her sister Camille wake up in a farmhouse and prepare for their morning chores. The piece unfolds organically and smoothly, and nothing like a rebus—as in, when the narrator mentions birds chirping, a performer doesn’t start making bird sounds. When Joan is described leaping from bed, there’s no one miming that action on the other side of the stage. The performers instead seem to act on a deeper, more quintessential instinct, offering ambiance rather than discernible settings, creating something at once ancient and contemporary.
Most folks know how the Joan of Arc story ends (spoiler alert: She’s burned at the stake). Surprisingly, the story of Different took great liberties with the French saint’s biography. Bits and pieces were true, but it was certainly clear by the end that this was more the story we perhaps wish unfolded, rather than what actually did. But you roll with it with the women onstage, and perhaps only a Joan of Arc buff would find themselves particularly miffed.
The performers (Myriah Duda, Robin Duda, Karen Light, Susie Perkins, Danielle Reddick and Susan Skeele) have been working on interacting with one another and creating this piece for many months according to director John Flax. And the performers’ relationships to each other onstage is indeed profound; watching their wordless communication as they present interpretive dances representing trees, soldiers, grasses, marching and battles is nothing short of a treat. Two performers backing up toward each other somehow know instinctively to stop within inches of colliding; heavy breathing and beautiful single-note songs somehow transport the audience to the fields of France through some uncanny collective consciousness. These performers have clearly worked hard to get their chemistry, timing and physical relationships to one another just right, and it comes across in watching them move and undulate nearly as one being.
The key to an improvised piece like this is confidence and commitment; even if a performer stumbles, whether physically or over their words, the key is to make that “error” as smooth and integrated as possible. This cast mostly accomplished that, with only a few discernible hiccups in the 50- to 70-minute production (the first time I saw it, it clocked in right around 70; the second time, energy was higher and it lasted more like an hour). The performers know the story that they are to tell, though they haven’t memorized it and no one has been assigned lines; whomever is moved to speak does so, and their working together over the last nine months has created an equitable situation in which everyone moves and vocalizes a generally equal part of the piece.
Many members of the audience got so sucked into the story that the changed ending and occasionally strange details didn’t even phase them. I stayed a little more skeptical, sometimes wishing for firmer footing, sometimes distracted by a stutter or slip. But despite myself, I was engulfed by the water-like movements, the stomping like hoofbeats, the singing creating a divine halo; and as I walked out of the theater each night I saw it, I couldn’t help but to think of that familiar refrain.
“I like it. What is it?”
Different 7:30 pm Friday and Saturday, Nov. 29 and 30; 2 pm Sunday Dec. 1. $12-$25. The Swan, 1213 Parkway Drive, 466-3533; tickets here.
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Charlotte's top skill is finding other people's mistakes. When she isn't correcting your grammar or reviewing local theatrical productions, she's probably reading obsessively about feminism. She loves barbecue, and has an art project Instagram account at @blackdresspics.