Dress me up, Dress me Down
Hagen and Simone; Tongue (double bill)
"Wit is the unexpected copulation of ideas."
The pun on copulation is what delivers the punch in that line, but "unexpected" is the word that makes the sentence true: the key to comedy is timing. If all the other elements are there, you can see how it might have been funny, but you don't go into convulsions.
That's what I learned from "The elements of Style," the clever, occasionally sparkling set of skits and dances and costume-changes, with commentary by Diana Vreeland and EB White, performed by Hagen and Simone last Friday night at the ODC Theater. Vreeland and White appeared (and dematerialized) as video projections onto a pair of doorways at each side of the black-box set, through which each of the live performers could suddenly appear and trade ripostes or launch into a silly walk or goofy dance. The problem was the translucent screening that formed the "door." It took projection beautifully, but raising and lowering it was not quite easy, and over the duration of the piece the drag they produced ate away at the hope of crack farce-timing suggested by doors opening and closing, madly flashing hilarious copulations…. (On another night, differences in timing might have been such that it went over fine.) A trick costume didn't function properly either—a power-dress suit "for her" had a ("SURPRISE!!") hot-pink inset that needed to flash open on cue; it was supposed to work off Vreeland's crack that "Hot pink is the navy blue of India!"….. but the seam was already partly open, so no surprise. Gimmicks have timing of their own, and they can throw everything off.
Well, experimental comics have to be allowed to try out their material on new crowds, and in fact, they've got to be allowed to fail. And maybe it was only me that night who was a little disappointed; ODC Theater was full (that's several hundred people) with a young hip crowd that applauded gladly.
Monique Jenkinson (the Simone of the pair) is one of the smartest modern dancers in the Area—a Bennington grad, she's in her early 30s, a strikingly good-looking woman with ideal Cunningham proportions—small head, long limbs, tons of turn-out, beautiful feet, and striking facial features, set off by a nose that is simultaneously beautiful and hilarious, and eyes that seem always to be about to cross. I've seen her in a one-woman show hold the stage all evening, with just a rolling clothes rack and lots of dresses for company. On that same show, she did a dance I will never forget with a chrome-plated floor fan, which she wore like a back-pack at first and then set in a corner and switched on. The wind from it established a diagonal that she explored with astonishing rigor, approaching and retreating, leaning into the wind in ways which revealed the tiniest shifts in articulation. It was a study in profiles and ¾ angles, and for all its abstraction, it was somehow very emotional.
Ever since then I've been a fan. I've been curious to see her drag character, "Fauxnique", who's been knocking them dead at Trannyshack, by all accounts, and picking up "best of the Bay Area "awards for it. She's been half of Hagen and Simone with the equally good-looking Kevin Clarke for three years—a collaboration born at Trannyshack—though the two have worked together off and on for like a decade.
It's hard to imagine Clarke in drag. I've never seen him do it, but from the moment he burst through his door, naked, cute and embarrassed, I found myself wondering if he had the temperament all the great drag acts have which transfigures the features they actually have into the aura of unstoppable glamour. Clarke is actually a hot, hunky guy, with legs like Lance Armstrong's; great fun to look at, but he does not seem to have that shameless exhibitionist streak that drag artists redeem by doing it for us, that generosity that made Divine divine. I wondered if the vibes at Trannyshack bring out something in him that's inhibited by bringing this material to a "legitimate" theater, but it's just speculation—and maybe it's me. I'm gay, not closeted, but it makes me nervous —sometimes extremely nervous—to see public displays of sexuality in places where I feel self-conscious. Clarke is likeable and skilled, and maybe the next time I see him in this kind of material, I'll get it.
On the other hand, maybe I simply couldn't change MY expectations; I came expecting more drag than we got—indeed, there was little drag per se—a fair amount of near nudity, and dressing up in butcher-paper, wigs, heels of all heights, precious little cross-gendered styling. The piece was certainly a study in style, in the tension between the designer's idea and the dancer/model's reality, between the precept and the example. (Precepts galore from Vreeland and Strunk; in fact, too much. By the end, they had begun to blare. "Omit needless words!")
Perhaps they weren't after comedy (certainly not farce); both performers had passages of strain, awkwardness, gawkiness—including, for her, a dance about being too tense which I found hard to watch. Of course, awkwardness and embarrassment are a mother lode of comedy—from "I Love Lucy" to "Friends," sticky situations, or embarrassment and how to get out of it, have been the name of the game. But this fell between the stools of stand-up zinger-stuff and situational narrative. Not uninteresting, but the only extended passage that REALLY worked for me was a dance for Jenkinson in which she morphed through beautifully rotated classical positions (wearing only panties and a bra), heels lifted and finely presented, with an arm curving from high fifth down to the hip, when the pelvis gave a little thrust, and the silhouette went from Mary Ellen Moylan to Verushka, and she went from beautiful to stunning.
The video-projection roles of White (or is it Strunk?) and Vreeland were played by Richard Louis James and Glamamore.
After the intermission, TONGUE segued into their "Tertium Quid" show with a sexy fashion show—looking like X-Men superheroes, in costumes made of shredded newspapers ("Look at those headlines!") they seemed to come straight from the fleshpots of La Brea, led off by a blonde with the proportions of a runway model and scary boots with platform soles to stomp you with. One muscular guy, who'd turn out to be a fabulously gymnastic release dancer, sort of surged up out of a some strips of newsprint, torso swelling out of fishnet that just couldn't contain him, with scrumptious pecs and nipples I'd wager had been rouged. Don't mean to get over-heated—this is the effect they were aiming for.
Excess clothing slipped off, and the dancing began with some gorgeous slithering across the floor, lifting the pelvis with turned-out thighs, so the leg in back was in a more-or-less classical attitude and the whole body seemed to be rising on an invisible wave which would then crest, roll over, and subside, whereupon the whole process began again. I could have watched that all night long; they all did it beautifully, the men as well as the women, and in each case there was a scrumptious sexuality to the offering of the pelvis which could have been raunchy but miraculously was not; it was simply beautiful.
The dancing which followed, and there was a lot of it, was very fine release work, set to mostly pulsing, hypnotic soundscape. Sections for the men were especially memorable for the heavily muscled guy who could land from explosive aerials with tremendous noise without seeming to have hurt himself, and for a more delicate man with the soft strong pecs and shoulders of a capoeirista, whose flips and tricks had a serenity to them in the midst of the fireworks. Perhaps I'd been watching too much Olympics, but the whole resembled men's pommel-horse and floor gymnastic routines, performed with a release manner and intention and a dancer's love of plié, welcoming and entering the floor. A typical move would be to throw the lower body into the air, knees bent, follow with the torso, kick out with the lower legs and maybe ronde de jambe followed by some flaring of the arms; I couldn't tell you how they landed, but they could do it and keep going.
The women were remarkable, too. An Asian woman in particular had fantastic aplomb; she could walk out of a cartwheel right onto her leg, she was right there, in the right place. I only saw her falter once.
The company dancers were Caroline Aizawa, Jay Bartley, Nicole Cox, Brittany Dunn, Jessica Harper, Holly Johnston, Bradley Michaud, and Bryan Walk. The choreography and fashion show concept were Stephanie Gilliland's. They had a guest performer, Peter Volk.