Before the start of the Joe Goode Performance Group's new show, Humansville, we were told that the first half of the performance would be made up of vignettes, each about seven minutes long, which would repeat for the first half hour. We could walk from one to the other in our own time and then take our seats for the second half of the show. Before the doors opened, I thought about the scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory where Gene Wilder, as Willy Wonka, is preparing to open the doors of his factory to outsiders for the first time in decades. In the film, tiny bells sound and expectation builds. "Count to three. Make a wish." Wonka whispers as he cracks open the door. The children are met with a confectionary wonderland and run about gorging themselves on sweets while Gene Wilder sings the movie's theme song "Pure Imagination."
"If you want to view paradise,
Simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
Want to change the world?
There's nothing to it."
I didn't know how apt this momentary flash would be.
Whenever one attends the theater, one expects the set to simulate some "permanent" reality wherein the show's action will take place, but in Humansville we are first encouraged to form a relationship with the set's physical structure and therefore its temporary nature. On one side are three fully formed compartments, on the other is a wall of raw sheetrock, between the two -- a passageway.
Our first contact is with compartmentalized selves, fully-constructed characters inside their own fully-constructed sets. In one vignette, dancers Melecio Estrella and Alexander Zendzian are each trapped in a tiny cell, they sing to one another through the walls and violently throw their bodies up against them. Are they trying to get out or just defining the limits of their compartments?
Next door is a plush room lined with red velvet, high up in the back wall is a dark window from which Patricia West recounts her latest disappointment. Is she the part of the mind that chatters on endlessly about the myriad mundane frustrations of everyday life?
In the third room, Jessica Swanson, a willful fifties princess in puffy skirt and beehive hairdo talks on the phone with her dreamy boyfriend, telling him the details of the paper she is writing on Pocahontas. Her gestures -- surprise, flirtation and mock fear -- are classic Joe Goode, who often works in a physical "vernacular," building up a dictionary of everyday gestures from which he constructs his dances. But then the moon comes up and our fifties princess looks at first like she is pushing it into the sky, and then seems to be struggling to hang onto it as it rises. When she returns later on in the piece, disheveled, definitely worse for wear, she made me think about how stubborn the idea of American inevitability has become -- and how tired.
If you walk through the hallway first thing, like I did, you might be startled when you peek into the various compartments. You may come face to face with Melecio Estrella, who locked his intense gaze onto me and fiercely stared me down.
The other side of the set is unfinished. It is full of potential. You can project anything onto it. Felipe Barrueto-Cabello and Marit Brook-Kothlow, two of Joe's veteran dancers, sit there under a projection of the fifties princess, who beckons us to come closer and to touch her. A brief story in words is projected about someone named "Itchy" who has no answers. I wondered if Itchy was Joe...
Let's face it. The Joe Goode Performance Group is made up of some of the most attractive people you will ever see on stage. They perform with surprisingly little ego. Even though the dancers bring tremendous power to the movement, they make it look effortless. And costume designer Wendy Sparks knows just how to dress them -- in costumes that look like the coolest street clothes imaginable. The set is genius. Austin Forbord's videos are perfection. Meanwhile Kronos Quartet veteran Joan Jeanrenaud plays cello on a rolling cart that is pushed around the room. An embarrassment of riches. The stage is set and then...
Here is the question that I left the performance thinking, a paraphrase of something repeated throughout the show, "How did you get out of your cell, Joe Goode? Did you just push?" Joe's humor is subtle and good-natured. Seeing his work is like being cajoled to witness the gentler side of the human experience by a wise uncle who comes to visit once a year, bringing campfire stories and insights about the follies and foibles of humanity. Joe Goode performances are always full of surprise, but Humansville was TRANSCENDANT.
The movement in the second half of the performance really took flight. Watching a duet between Filipe and Marit, which seemed to symbolize the struggle toward relationship, toward intimacy, was like watching a couple of baby birds learn to fly. Each dancer deals with his or her own internal demons before that intimacy can be attainted, which looks something like struggling to get out of an invisible straight jacket or being attacked by biting flies! This struggle is intertwined with moments of almost absurd tenderness. At one point, Marit rubs the back of her head all over Filipe's body, and the gesture is innocent, vulnerable, the look on her face is both bewildered and determined.
During one of the final dances, each motion seemed interlocked so seamlessly to the next that it felt light, conveying a rising sense of euphoria. I could hear Billie Holliday's version of "You Go to My Head" in the dancers' feet -- "and I find you spinning round in my brain, like the bubbles in a glass of champagne..." The dance got so giddy, it was like watching the physical expression of a playful mind.
The final video image could have been interpreted as the light at the end of life -- the one you're not supposed to go into unless you are ready to "pass on." Or it could just as easily have been seen as the view directly into an empty film projector. It could be read as a blank, as possibility. Perhaps what Joe Goode was saying is that in Humansville, you create your own box and live your life inside its boundaries until you realize that it's just a construct. And how do you get out? You just push.
At the end of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the great glass elevator has smashed through the roof and is flying over the village. Wonka leans in and asks, "What happened to the boy who got everything he ever wanted?" The answer is "he lived happily ever after."
Humansville runs through June 9, 2007 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Get tickets and information.