What makes certain images iconic? Choreographer Doug Varone pondered the question in Boats Leaving at the 2006 American Dance Festival. But you don't have to have seen the dance to get the point. Instead, imagine someone, seated, using his or her arms to cradle another person's head. Are they two lovers? Is this the Pietà? Or is it the memory of some black-and-white snapshot of a relief worker in Rwanda—or before that, a medic in Vietnam?
The point is, even if their meaning changes, the images themselves keep showing up. They do this in our culture because the situations that provoke or inspire them keep showing up as well.
Pictures become iconic in the same way accounts of events become archetypal: They're the stories our civilization repeats, endlessly, to itself.
In the world premiere of Stroke/Book, playwright David Turkel seemingly traces two tales of differing sexual and societal dysfunctions backward, from the hauntingly similar images both confront us with at the end. In the opener, Stroke, Turkel dramatizes the horror a woman faces at the dawn of her sexual awakening sometime in the mid-1800s. In Book, the more contemporary of these two one-acts, a man seemingly out of his depth in both peacetime and war achieves sex—but never intimacy—from a series of unwise trades.
We're told that the playwright's choice to frame these tales in selected conventions from Noh theater was inspired by the mid-20th-century adaptations of that genre's classic dramas by the Japanese poet, playwright and film director Yukio Mishima. But the highly codified structures of that art form not only parallels the rigidity of Victorian society and its views on sex, it can also be read as a commentary on our own culture's deeply embedded relationship with violence.
Director Tom Marriott's intimate, raised and minimal set ably utilizes the Golden Belt's ancient support beams as wooden bashira framing the world of the performance. In Stroke, costume designer Chelsea Kurtzman creates a striking look for actors Evgenia Madorsky, Tamara Kissane, Dana Marks and Jeffrey Detwiler, one that marries Victorian visual references of the pristine with the porcelain and corruption in the visual art of Ray Caesar. The design fits for a trio (and later, a quartet) of women who have all been warped—if not mutated outright—by their culture's ideas on gender and sexuality.
There's nearly a note of H.P. Lovecraft in the fallen Zita's warning to Bron when she thwarts a tryst with his lover: "Perhaps I was saving you too, then? From things you don't even know you're capable of. The whole force of the world moves in your blood. It has its own ideas. Believe me: It doesn't care a lick for you, or her."
For that matter, E.T.A. Hoffman, that German master of the macabre, doesn't seem too far from the premises, as central character Anna begins unpeeling the layers of her own sexuality—and deducing exactly what well-hidden function she is expected to serve, now, at age 16. In one scene, she desperately asserts what she's just realized: "My body has a worth—a value—as if it's some invention that I discovered hidden somewhere, but I don't know how to use it." A truly chilling interaction in a wordless prologue only reinforces this assessment.
Anna's unexpected reunion with her estranged brother Bron leads them to play out different hypotheses—variations on the life Anna could possibly lead in the worlds where the two find themselves. Based on their findings, Anna ultimately acts, in a work where strong performances by Kissane, Marks and Madorsky presage a final tableau of ruin.
In Book, actor Aaron Dunlap's Paul, something of a teenage miscreant, falls from the fundamentalist Christian guilt and asexuality of his missionary parents directly into the lap of the military—embodied by Jeffrey Detwiler's gung-ho (and tin-plated) Sergeant Ty. Good luck untangling things after that.
Put up to a disastrous first sexual experience by Sarge, Paul descends through the ranks, suffers a head wound in battle and is hospitalized and mustered out. Throughout this gauntlet, Ty remains his errant guide—even though he died back on the battlefield. Sarge's absurd, self-serving view of Buddhism and the way of the samurai drives Paul to the brink of suicide, where what begins as his death poem ultimately turns into a best-seller.
In superimposing scenes from a relationship that take place years apart, Turkel probes the dilemma of a man who has already left life but has not been embraced by death. Both Paul and the audience wonder if his experience has been a cursed dream—and if so, when did it begin? With doubling of roles among the cast, Detwiler eventually gives a notable performance as an older, unmoored Paul.