Campo Santo’s beautiful, straightforward, and oblique performance piece Ethos de Masquerade begins with choreographer Rashad Pridgen slithering on stage in a costume that makes him resemble something between a street bum and the infamous graffiti artist and anarchist Banksy.
That Pridgen's face is masked, that he seems full of bonhomie with a sly hint of outlaw danger -- he’s got a cigar and offers swigs of alcohol to the audience -- only adds to the allure. In a show that directly addresses contemporary, hot-button issues such as gentrification, feminism, racial inequality, and AIDS, the thing that dances before our eyes is a mystery.
Right from the start, there is a serious tension between the symbolic and the singular facts of the street that gives Ethos de Masquerade a strange realism.
You can feel it in the way the excellent six dancer-actors perform. They seem both an abstraction -- dressed alike and almost militaristic in their precision and movements -- and a group of friends just casually talking about the world as they stroll through the city. They point to all the ways the city around them has changed and we feel as if we are with them, that they are just friendly guides -- “Look up: things are gone.”
The performers' lament isn't so much an anti-gentrification screed as it is the wonder of a world ripped right out from under them. The delivery is stylized, but it has the feel of casual talk. And that tonal control allows the performers to get away with polemical lines like, “We don’t bury our dead, we build over them,” as well as references to Japanese internment camps and Jonestown.
Part of the pleasure of Ethos de Masquerade is how it sneaks up on you, how you find yourself in conversation with the piece without the kind of windup you might have in a more traditional play.
Pridgen and co-directors Sean San José and Star Finch just let everything move along. And yet, from the performers to the choreography to the design, the production is so self-assured that it seems as if it isn’t happening. Or put another way, the subject matter of the show is one of extreme distress, but the aesthetic is as sly as a Bossa Nova tune.
Though Pridgen conceived of and choreographed the piece, the script is the product of what seems an army of authors -- Luis Alfaro, Colman Domingo, co-directors Finch and San José, Chinaka Hodge, A.M. Smiley, and Pridgen. And that’s not even mentioning the fine videography (Joan Osato) and sound design (Juan Wonway Posibul Amador), as well as costumes (Pridgen and Mary Hougue) that literally seem to rise out of the set and the performers’ bodies. If there ever were a piece that challenges forms of authorship and authority, this is it. The collective speaking in concert is what shines here.
In the last section, San José tells a story about his mother’s death from AIDS that is as offhand and harrowing as you could imagine. I could devote an entire essay just to the intensity of San José's eyes; I’m not sure his pupils ever moved. At first, the shift in focus is off-putting. What we're hearing feels too specific, too much one man’s story. But that story soon encompasses others (patient zero, Sylvester, Reza Abdoh), just as the disease eventually made its way through to the whole of the world.
And then we’re invited to a giant nightclub in the sky. Pridgen, in the last of many unbelievable costumes, leads the way, followed and supported by the talented cast, and finally members of the audience. Audience participation is rarely natural. But the night I experienced the show, we weren't even asked to join; people just spontaneously started dancing.
The almost classical construction of Ethos de Masquerade, its balance of intellectual distance and in-the-moment heat, allows for the seemingly impossible -- a nightclub of respect, order, and joy. It's as if René Descartes had written a dance poem in the form of a beautiful equation: “We think therefore we are.”
And the thing that dances, that appears to be us, too.
'Ethos de Masquerade' runs Friday, Aug. 25 through Sunday, Aug. 27 at the Strand Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here.