Two characters, a young man and a young woman (Bert and Penny, Melicio Estrella and Damara Vita Ganley) step into two separate squares of light and declare their commitment to one another. He vows to be a fierce protector; she will try not to be a "walking scream." Penny has been "touched in unspeakable ways," explored against her will. Bathed in white light, the two perform a tender dance that expresses their post-trauma struggle to right themselves and make their world whole again.
And just like that I am transported to a San Francisco long past (mid-1980s), a mostly nocturnal place I explored with my own Penny in a special gay guy - straight girl bubble that those on the outside have a hard time comprehending.
We live together on top of Dolores Street sharing two rooms adjoined by a heating vent through which we talk to one another deep into the night. Lately, my Penny has been dating a pretty boy from Ohio, who drove to San Francisco on his motorcycle with a group of other, equally striking straight boys. She has a mane of bright red hair and I have a mass of long black curls; neither of us will ever be more beautiful. On Friday nights one of the local TV stations has begun playing reruns of The Avengers, forcing me to seriously consider whether going out on the prowl will be better than Emma Peel -- in an era well before the DVR. Inevitably my Penny sends one of her "motorcycle boys" to pick me up at two in the morning to bring me to tonight's party. For some reason they like having me on the back of their bikes and often steal kisses when they think no one is looking.
One night in the dead of winter, the boys show up with a young woman in tow. She is just out of the hospital, recovering from a savage attack in Golden Gate Park, where she was gang raped, stabbed repeatedly and left for dead. The boys don't know how to show her how much they love her and how wrecked they are by what has happened to one of their own. So they bring her to us, along with several hits of 'x' and a brand new copy of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds' Your Funeral, My Trial, which plays over and over into the night.
Joe Goode always does this to me. He accesses my deepest memories, opening them up like an emotional archaeologist, carefully uncovering layers of forgotten feeling. He inspires contradictory impulses -- sharing and hiding, revelation and withholding -- and his latest effort, Hush, is full of this push and pull.
First off, Hush stays focused on one particular story, which is a startling change. Goode is a master storyteller, but his style in the past has been more rambling, pulling together dream-like story fragments to create a cohesive whole. With Hush the action is clearly focused on one small group of friends and lovers and grounded around one particular setting, the bar where they all work. Hush explores how a tribe heals itself when one of its members has been violated. But in the effort to put into words pain that cannot be adequately expressed, the characters' individual struggles to move on with their lives, to take the next step into responsibility or self-definition is also revealed. This approach yields vivid scenes, but also feels too literal at times, as do Erik Flatmo's sets, which are just gestures but their specificity feels too containing -- for both the movement and the emotion.
Perhaps it is this specificity that also makes Hush feel like it is emanating from another era. Or maybe it is the characters, who express a kind of retro naiveté; they don't feel as sharp or as savvy as young people do today. Though there is a funny bit where Bert uses theory to express his struggle with his sexuality and exasperation at the insistence he name and label himself for the others. "Why can't we just live in the complexity, in the anarchy of our own feelings?" Indeed. Joe Goode opens us, these feelings well up. Do we share them?
There are a lot of words in this piece called Hush, some of them great, most of them a little more serious than we are used to in a Joe Goode performance. But most startling, given the title, is the use of sound. Ben Juodvalkis' music discards all of Goode's usual Midwestern twang in favor of a much more contemporary atmosphere, creating a harder reality. It makes the characters feel more gritty and real while simultaneously generating a more traditionally theatrical vibe, which is reinforced by the very witty addition of Foley artist Sudhu Tewari. With the simple application of footsteps, clinking glasses and other old-fashioned sound effects timed with individual movements, Tewari brings characters into sharp focus -- the audio equivalent of a spotlight. Where we expect flights of Joe Goode fancy, Tewari's contribution illustrates the characters' solid mass and their relationship to gravity, which lends weight (and some cartoon levity) to the proceedings.
And then there is the absence of Joe himself. We miss the odd, good-natured uncle who regularly brings us together to share his dreams and tell funny fragmented stories about the way things were and are or are supposed to be. But then his disappearance allows the group's core members to become stronger, their characters more vivid -- no longer just gorgeous Vandellas to Goode's magnetic Martha Reeves. This newfound solidity results in a different-sounding voice; it's more urban and a little rougher, but also less nuanced.
The movement has changed as well. Gone are many of the idiosyncratic gestures and falls we've come to know and love, replaced now with a dynamic, sinewy and more certain motion, which dares to be on the beat. Early on, it is interesting to witness how Bert struggles with a guarded love interest (Felipe Barrueto-Cabello) while the hetero couples easily intertwine -- they don't have to struggle to caress. The finale even incorporates dance club gestures into a set of movements that build, loop, crumble, recombine and pile up into an exhilarating crescendo, like witnessing evolution in action. As always, the company (rounded out by Jessica Swanson, Andrew Ward and Alexander Zendzian) is amazing, perfectly dressed by Jennifer Gonsalves, who makes these great dancers look like just plain folks off the street.
It is all of these contradictions, past versus present, Joe versus no Joe, gentle versus harsh, presence versus absence, sound versus silence, feeling versus burying pain, facing versus avoiding decision, that make Hush tick. While it is hard to let go of the familiar things we love, it is refreshing to discover something new. Hush says a lot and does a lot both as a play about moving on and as a new piece for a performance group that is moving forward.
Hush runs through October 5, 2013 at Z Space in San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit joegoode.org.
Photos by Margo Moritz.