Joe Goode Performance Group

'Folk' & 'Transparent Body'

by Mary Ellen Hunt

June 28, 2003 -- Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA

For the first time in my experience with the Joe Goode Performance Group, I had a real twinge. I think I was offended.

At my liberal arts, politically alert, left-leaning, feminist college, the joke was that everyone was always "offended." Affronts of every conceivable sort could bring on an exchange that begins "I'm so offended by that," "Well, I'm offended that you're offended by that."

That hair-trigger sensitivity is something that I've long since relaxed, but it must only lie dormant, because at the performance of Joe Goode's "Folk," which the company premiered at the Yerba Buena Center in a two-week run this month, I found myself muttering under my breath, "I think I'm..."

Then I immediately laughed to myself, because in this liberal-artsy, politically alert, zealously sensitive town, watching the work of an intellectual, plugged-in, left-leaning, gay artist made the very notion seem ridiculous. And after all, I've always enjoyed JGPG's work, and I did ultimately enjoy this season's offering. Goode is witty, sensitive, an astute observer of humankind. But he's also provocative: he wants to make you think.

The structure of "Folk" is essentially the same as his recent "Mythic, Montana" and "What the Body Knows." The tireless performers of the seven-member company (two performance interns bring the cast of "Folk" to nine) sketch out fragmentary narratives and portraits of loosely-related characters, "sad sacks and rumpled insomniacs" as he puts it in one of his lengthy monologues.

All the JGPG favorites are here. Goode himself plays a drawling refugee from the Los Angeles high life in the middle of a self-conscious nervous breakdown, who has wandered into the decidedly rural landscape of the California town of Tehachapi. Liz Burritt as Amber, a waitress in a local diner, is priceless as usual, pulling faces, and moving with utter confidence from the stage to the audience.

Marc Morozumi, with arguably the most unusual character, is a social outcast and artist who makes Veronica's veil-like portraits of dead people, but longs for "normal" life in desktop publishing, or maybe retail management. True to his moniker, Morozumi's "Snake Boy" oozes with slow, dangerous-looking releases through his upper back and twists of his spine.

In the midst of the ruminations, the quips and the touching reflections, there is some evocative dancing and memorable images. Felipe Barrueto-Cabello, as the shy romantic dishwasher Miguel, accompanied by the percussion of three women on silverware, pie plate and a bell, creates an engaging solo with a dishrag that expressed emotions from playful humor to the panic of a little boy caught slacking. A transporting duet for Marit Brook-Kothlow and Barrueto-Cabello is satisfying and fluid, consonant in a way that is only possible for two partners who have worked together for years.

As always, one of Goode's strengths is his sense of visual composition. During an exchange between Goode and Morozumi, giant tumbleweed, pinned on a clothesline that cuts through the space diagonally, slowly march up the line. A grouping of six dancers, working in pairs on the floor, perform a structurally simple phrase of movement in canon and against each other like a fugue.

It's all set in one of Goode's favorite locations: the hopelessly weird landscape of Someplace in Middle America. Indeed, Goode's themes and characters are often so American that I used to wonder how the JGPG could possibly play his works on international tours. How would audiences respond to works that portray such idiosyncratically American situations? But as I watched "Folk" it became clear that it would probably be easy for audiences to decode this piece. Most of the characters are stereotypes. The wacky wise-cracking waitress, the self-involved, gay SoCal movie-man, the disaffected young girl.

The specificity of these Tehachapi characters though, is what initially gave me pause. How would this dusty California desert town -- site of the historic Tehachapi Railroad Loop, which amazed the engineering world, even as it took the lives of countless Chinese workers -- feel about being Goode's shorthand for rural America? Is Goode aware of that history? Is he, in an almost inscrutably subtle way, commenting on that history by casting Morozumi, the only Asian member of the company, as the social pariah? Goode is a meticulous storyteller, I think to myself. He has surely done his research, and if he mentioned the town's name, he must have a reason. But then, out in the audience, how would anyone who hadn't studied railroad history ever see that point? IS that part of his point? Maybe it's not. The brain goes round and round in circles.

It's one of the reasons I like Goode's work, but it can be a frustration as well. You feel stupid because you're not getting the point, and yet, you are fully aware that there is a point. Probably a good one, if you only had all the pieces so that you could put everything together.

Oddly, although its structure is less organized, a clearer sense of purpose and direction emerges in "Transparent Body" which shared the program with "Folk." Here, as in the previous piece, vignettes and characters are the vehicles of discourse, only even more outrageous and self-aware than before. Certainly there is less dancing per se, and more mugging going on in this piece. Goode swaggers around as a bigoted truck driver, or cavorts in the audience as a camp version of the Alpine heroine Heidi, consciously, almost coyly, redrawing and crossing the lines between real and pretend over and over again.

In some of the episodes, the dancers, doubling in some cases as musicians, sing songs that have the impression of being faux-naive: simple chord changes, minor-key, almost chanted lyrics. Think Suzanne Vega's "Luka."

I last saw this cabaret-style work at Goode's Shut Up and Dance program at the Cowell Theater in 2001, and then my favorite quote was "The banal truth is never as touching or entertaining as we would like it to be." Given the vamping, ostentatious look of "Transparent Body," I had the definite sense that he was out to be touching and entertaining with a vengeance.

This time however, the quote that caught my attention came during one of Goode's chatty, confidential monologues, which often sound like confessions to a shrink. "Maybe in one's work, one is rewriting the script to one's life, choosing the words and actions to make it seem more orderly and intentional."

Truth and reality, who do we want to be, who do we make ourselves into? But speaking of truth, how can one really summarize and do justice to the makeshift cabaret, the purple sequins, the Gothed-out backup troupe, but also the touchingly real moments and multi-faceted questions that he proposes? As with the best theater, it simply has to be seen, and if you can take away something from it, then you're that much richer. If you can't, well, you had a good laugh.

Offended or no, it's days later and I'm still thinking about the performance. What more could you ask of any theatrical experience?

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