Tumbling in Her Pursuit of Truth
Musings on Complicated Topics in a Surreal World
A young woman stares emptily into the space of a spare room. She twists herself in knots and ponders gratifications immediate and profound. A confused (and perhaps dumb-witted) adolescent plants herself on a chair and grapples with the maddening aspects of love. Her inarticulate jabberings mirror her physical slips and spills. A nervous child buries herself under a pile of stuffed animals to protect herself from the world outside. A girl pulls her shirt off, steps into a tin tub and ladles water over her face. Her seductive gaze and sexual surety could give Mrs. Robinson a run for her money. Each of these characters is as fully realized as one out of Pinter’s playbook. The trick is, they’re all the same person—or rather, they are all portrayed by one Mary Armentrout. As evinced by her “dance theater installation,” titled “Solo Musings on Complicated Topics in a Surreal World,” the schizophrenic manifestations that occupied little Sally Field in “Sybil” have nothing on the prism of personalities swirling around in Armentrout’s head.
The small square room that is the 848 Community Space may very well have represented the workings of this performer’s mind; it was designed to evoke a Freudian dreamscape. Fragments of memories were scattered minimally in the corners, echoed in ripples of songs and sounds, and projected across the back wall like the id’s movie screen.
Divided somewhat disproportionately into four segments, the musings in question provided several opportunities for Armentrout to wax psychological and plumb the depths of her own insecurities. She took every one of them, inhabiting her characters entirely and making them easy to identify with. Even infinitesimal hopes and fears, when expressed by Armentrout, gained social and emotional relevance.
If the impact of the performance was eventually anticlimactic, it was because Armentrout crammed too many ideas on top of one another before they could linger long enough in our own minds. She strained to create a dramatic flow, but most of the works on display were excerpts from larger dances (one of which is seven hours long). This left each segment somewhat abridged, stunting the messages therein. Armentrout approached such redoubtable topics as Homeland Security, sexuality and the human psyche—each worthy of deep meditation—so calling her efforts musings seemed like the easy way out. It was an explanation, but was no excuse.
“Blue Sofa/Alone” opened with Armentrout sitting on a ratty sofa, her blank expression and motionless figure filling the silence. Fiddling with a hole on her sweater sleeve, she stretched it almost completely off her arm, and then followed the twisted fabric with her eyes, then her legs. Once upside down and on her back, she stared at the audience, asking “Oh, what do I want?” Moving and talking in circles, she listed possible satisfactions to suit her yearnings.
The options ran the gamut, from the mundane to the interpersonal. References to Vietnamese sandwiches and lavender ice cream stuck out ostentatiously from her otherwise conventional monologue, like sequined designer names on a white t-shirt. But admissions like “I’m sorry I locked your mother in the bathroom” and ”I’m sorry I knocked you over” rang true with the human need for attention. Armentrout got up and waded through the flotsam in her living space, picking up snack foods and knocking over furniture.
Videotaped beach scenes—superimposed onto the entire room—cast a blue pall over the work and provided a little release from the undulating tensions of Armentrout’s jerky choreography. Her scrambled thoughts and feelings, the kind that accompany an unstable relationship, were put into sharp focus. The resolution, while inevitable, was no less rewarding because of it.
A jumbled second piece, called “Why do love songs always feel like car crashes? #2,” featured the performer interacting with a chair in the center of the room. She crawled on all fours and draped her body over it, suggesting the tiresome balancing act of maintaining love. Her character never found her romantic traction, and instead “fell” over and over in spite of herself. Ardor, in this vignette, provided an obstacle course for her heart (and perhaps an inner ear problem for her bearings). Armentrout spun onto her posterior more often than Patsy and Edina do on an episode of “Absolutely Fabulous.”
When she took her seat, she inhabited the personae of a girlish flirt, bobbing her legs up and down, innocently rolling her head around her shoulders. This childish posture—along with pocket wisdoms, served like handfuls of gumdrops—was reminiscent of Edith Ann (the character that Lily Tomlin originated in 1971), who would finish every address with the phrase “And that’s the truth,” followed by a raspberry. It was a cutesy, cloying dance-work, slim as a Marlboro, but vibrantly rendered by its talented interpreter.
Once the tone of the performance changed to the graver, more abstract sensations of fear, however, Armentrout miraculously fused the worriments of childhood and the insecurities of being a grownup. “Dark Piece” was the highlight (so to speak) of the night.
She gathered a herd of stuffed animals into a pile and buried herself almost completely under them. “That’s no good; I can still feel a draft from the back door,” she sighed. The moment rekindled those juvenile rationalizations like one’s being out of sight keeping one out of harm’s way. As her dance progressed, she seemed to age before us. With eyes wide as saucers, Armentrout repeatedly curled into a fetal position, then whirled into a stance that suggested she was holding a baby and letting go of it. The maturation from infancy to maternity has rarely been so seamlessly mimed.
The stuffed animals were once again integrated into the work: this time, the performer took on the presence of an ill-prepared overseer of a population incapable of fending for itself. She even brought out duct tape and police line, turning her living room into a metaphorical facsimile of homeland security. “Someone needs to do something!” was her mantra as she proceeded to wrap the tape around a toy dog’s mouth and neck. The chuckles that rumbled out of the audience were of the sardonic, distrustful sort. But all cynicism came to a halt with Armentrout’s teary-voiced closing line: “How can you make hope possible?”
The final musing, as it were, “A leads to B,” revealed Armentrout’s wistful appetite for sensual excursion and emotional redress. She rhapsodized about the splendor of an open sky, and swimming, and how the two can merge into one’s psychosomatic desires. Once inside the aforementioned tub, she articulated her wants and sticky sexual fumblings with precision. But it concluded prematurely. The last leg of the show was too wispy to be substantive, too twee to feel carnal. Nevertheless, Armentrout’s full-bodied transformation from kittenish tot to slinky seductress kept audience members in her thrall.
Mary Armentrout is a performance artist of tremendous range. She utilizes body language as well as verbal acuity: both vocabularies are so carefully attuned and so delicately melded, she seems to be inventing a new kind of dance theatre before our eyes. It’s exhausting to behold, and clearly it’s difficult to achieve: she’s got the bruised knees to attest to that. Those knees are her most expressive feature. She crooked them inward, and suddenly she was a little girl. She shifted her weight onto one and turned the other out, and suddenly she was a femme fatale. By the time Armentrout is finished, there’s a crowd of people she’s introduced to you; more than a few of them have something interesting to talk about. And that’s the truth.