Cautionary Tales and Blood-Thirsty Mobs: Bluemouth Inc. remounts How Soon is Now? by Keren Zaiontz

Irondale Theatre, Brooklyn, New York May 1st-9th, 2009 How Soon is Now? cast: Cass Buggé, Stacie Morgain Lewis, Stephen O’Connell, Daniel Pettrow, Lucy Simic, Omar Zubair

How Soon is Now? collaborators (2004-2009)—Associate Artists: Ciara Adams, Cass Buggé, Cameron Davis, Jeff Douglas, Chris Dupuis, Kevin Jaszek, Stacie Morgain-Lewis, Daniel Pettrow, Kevin Rees, Robert Tremblay. Core Artists: Sabrina Reeves, Lucy Simic, Stephen O’Connell, and Richard Windeyer.

A children’s tale can often be deceptive in its simplicity and heavy in its moral dispensations. The aim, usually, is to instruct the child: to communicate lessons about where one should seek to satisfy one’s appetite for porridge; why the gift of a comb or apple is not always a signal of generosity; and why garden gates should be shut before journeying into the woods. In How Soon is Now? the company bluemouth inc., an interdisciplinary, site-specific ensemble (New York City and Toronto-based), takes the genre of the children’s tale and transforms its role so that the tale rather than seek to caution and instruct becomes a vehicle that unsettles and critiques the very story it stages.

The story that bluemouth stages is that of Peter and the Wolf by Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev. However, the ensemble’s rendering bears little resemblance to the modern folk tale and children’s opera that Prokofiev found himself composing in Stalinist Russia. What bluemouth seizes upon is precisely the fraught context that Prokofiev was forced to smooth over through his elegant composition. His was not a commission but an obligation bound by propaganda and trucked as entertainment for “the people.” The independent collectively-created production by bluemouth is not (thank God!) a top-down command imposed by the state but an interrogation of xenophobic state control.

The ensemble’s interrogation draws upon German filmmaker, Fritz Lang's 1931 thriller M. As audiences, we are treated to an adaptation of these two works in a manner that combines characters from both the film and opera and adapts scenes (such as the trial scene) from Lang’s M. The absorption of these texts into a single telling results in the conflation of two characters, the Wolf from Prokofiev’s opera, and the child murderer, Hans Beckert, who occupies the centre of the hysteria in M. (Wolf and Beckert and conflated into a single role performed by Stephen O’Connell.) The lamination of these two characters and artworks onto one another sets the stage for a meditation on the threatening Other. The very presence of the Wolf becomes a moral question for his community who spends much of the play deliberating whether to accept and rehabilitate him or disavow and destroy him. The caption that follows the title How Soon is Now? on both the play programme and company website—“Get the Wolf!”—suggests that the verdict leans toward retribution.

How Soon is Now?
is performed in a formerly vacant building adjoining a local Presbyterian church. The high ceiling, stain glass windows, peeling walls, and gothic revival art contributes to an atmosphere in which the distinction between crime and sin is nearly indistinguishable. In How Soon Is Now? the criminal body has a penal soul. This stark metaphysical condition is theatricalized by the Wolf who hangs upside down, Christ-like, in the centre of the site, which has been gutted of stage and seats. Peter (cross-cast as Lucy Simic) holds up a microphone that modulates and distorts his voice and thus denies us access to his story. Previous to this aerial crucifixion, the audience enters the site and witnesses an animated film on the balcony that circles around the main space. The animation, which is projected on a small screen, resembles a child's undisciplined scrawl, and is accompanied by a scratchy recording of a young girl singing in a high register. Following this animation, we witness a grieving mother (Stacie Morgain-Lewis) who looks and sounds as if she has stepped out of M. Standing amidst the audience Morgain-Lewis performs the entirety of her monologue in German as she recounts the atrocity committed by the Wolf. Later, in the role of (song) Bird, she advocates for the destruction of the Wolf. The Bird moralizes in the same high pitch as the young girl that accompanied the animated recording. A pregnant belly visible under her peasant dress, Morgain-Lewis sings, “You’ve never had children…until you’ve lost one.”

When the audience makes its way down to the stripped space below, wood benches and a make-shift jury box comprise the seating as spectators find themselves implicated as witnesses and jurors in a mock trial scene. Like the stripped site, How Soon is Now? is composed of five characters who are themselves stripped of “characterization.” Duck (Cass Buggé), Bird, Wolf, Cat (Daniel Pettrow), and Peter display no scrupulous psychological details about themselves, rather, we come to know them through their blunt ideological positions and where they choose to align themselves within the divisions “us” and “them.” These divisions are not only expressed through the rhetoric of accusation and wordplay but also through film, music, textured soundscapes, and choreography.

The dance piece that greets the audience in the main performance hall is an energetic call-to-arms that bookends the beginning and end of the trial scene. The choreography makes no room for abstraction as each gesture devotes itself to an authoritarian display. High kicks, arms taking the shape of Kalashnikov rifles, and a controlled three-hundred and sixty degree sweep that follows the trace of an unseen target, ends in the ensemble splitting apart—giddily tumbling onto the ground, falling onto their sides—like a monument that can not hold. The melody that accompanies this ode to militarism is a mix of recorded music (which includes a trumpet solo) and a rhythmic drumbeat performed by Omar Zubair (composed by Richard Windeyer). The drumming, which invades the space with the force of a marching band, is as uncompromising as the movement it accompanies. Through its unceasing beat, it reveals that the characters are closer to a cavalry than a community.

What adds to the compelling character of the choreography is that it is performed inches away from its audience. bluemouth is known for its fearless choreography which makes full use of both its sites and its spectators. The duets that take place during the trial scene, for instance, occur in front of, alongside, and behind seated audience members. This movement immerses spectators in the one-on-one combat between the characters—combat, that once again draws upon recognizable movement vocabularies. The duet between the Wolf and the Cat (which ends in his murder) mimics the gestures of a bull fight; and the face-off between Peter and the Wolf occurs through the physical language of the tango. Throughout the duet, Lucy Simic, as Peter, knocks the Wolf to the floor, walks over him, face-down, and sticks her foot in his throat. In both dance numbers there is a desire to master and do damage to the threatening Other through movement. The proximity of these choreographic numbers to the audience is more than simply a novelty of site-specific performance. The physical aggression demonstrated in both duets shows how the hostile treatment of the outsider is not a historically remote circumstance—an experience unique to either Prokofiev’s Russia or Fritz Lang’s inter-war Berlin.

The spectators’ proximity to the stylized display of violence highlights the fact that unless we act upon what we witness then we are complicit in its violence.
bluemouth productions strive to highlight the presence of the audience as agents in a performance event. (Their most recent show in Toronto, Dance Marathon, places its audiences at the centre of the event as dance competitors!) While New York audiences were treated to How Soon is Now? for the first time at the Irondale arts facility in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, Toronto audiences have had the opportunity to catch two incarnations of the show. The first, originally titled Memory of Bombs, was produced in a boiler room as part of the 2004 Summerworks Festival. The company returned to the show, in co-production with the Theatre Centre in 2007, and performed in a disused sound stage in the west end (the show was later nominated for three Dora awards).

In its American debut, How Soon Is Now? shows itself to be a timely piece in the aftermath of the treatment of 9/11 “enemy combatants” in prisons such as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Gharib. After 9/11, we heard accounts of citizens being wrongly imprisoned because of their ethnicity; witnessed images of men in pointed hoods holding “stress positions” and we continued about our daily lives, largely unchanged. State control was framed as “security” and xenophobia as patriotism. By staging and adapting the works of artists who laboured under the glare of fascism, bluemouth shows that the extremity of their circumstances is not as remote as we think. Far from a simple moral dispensation, How Soon Is Now? communicates that, in gouging out the eye of the threatening Other (destroying him) there is no guarantee that we will not, in the process, destroy ourselves.

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