by Byron Woods
What makes certain images iconic? It’s one of the questions choreographer Doug Varone was working on in his low-lit, pensive—and at times, eerie—work BOATS LEAVING, which premiered here at the 2006 American Dance Festival. Through a wide-ranging series of tableaus based, according to the dancemaker, on a year’s worth of news photographs from the New York Times, we gradually began to notice: certain gestures, certain interactions came up again. And again—even if the emotional valences behind the moments were radically different in some of their reiterations.
You don’t have to have seen the dance to get the point. Simply imagine someone, seated, cradling another person’s head in their arms. Are they two lovers? Is this the Pieta? Or the memory of some snapshot of a relief worker in Rwanda—or before that, a medic in Vietnam?
The point remains: the images 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 archetypes: They’re the stories our civilization repeats, endlessly, to itself.
In the world premiere of STROKE/BOOK, playwright David Turkel traces two tales of differing sexual and societal dysfunctions backward, from the hauntingly similar images both confront us with at the end. In the evening opener, Stroke, Turkel threads through a historically-based horror a woman faces at the dawn of her sexual awakening sometime in the mid-1800s. In Book, the latter and more contemporary of these paired one-acts, a man seemingly out of his depth in both peacetime and war achieves sex—but never intimacy—from of 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 Japanese poet, playwright and film director Yukio Mishima’s mid-20th century adaptations of that genre’s classic dramas. But the highly codified structures of that art form (and the culture in the time the form developed) not only parallels the rigidity of Victorian society and its views on sex; it can be read as a commentary on our own culture’s apparently intransigent relationship with violence as well.
Director Tom Marriott’s intimate, raised and minimal set ably utilizes the ancient wooden support beams in Durham's Golden Belt building as bashira that frame the world of the performance. In Stroke, costume designer and makeup consultant Chelsea Kurtzman creates with actors Evgenia Madorsky, Tamara Kissane, Dana Marks and Jeffrey Detwiler a striking look that marries Victorian visual references of the pristine with the elements of porcelain, distortion—and corruption—found in the visual art of Ray Caesar. Something of a costuming coup, revealed later, evokes the stylized, sexualized surrealism of a painting by Wolfgang Hutter as well. Such designs fit a trio (and later, a quartet) of women who have all been visibly 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.”
Anna’s unexpected reunion with 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 luckless Paul, who is something of a teenaged 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 all of that.
Put up to a disastrous first sexual experience by the 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—despite the fact that he died somewhere back there on the battlefield. Sergeant Ty’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-selling novel.
But such a seemingly dramatic reversal of fortune has a strangely flat effect here. In superimposing scenes from a relationship that take place years apart, Turkel probes here the dilemma of a man who has already left life, yet hasn’t been embraced by death. A significant early plot point echoes Mishima’s adaptation of the Noh play The Pillow of Kantan, in which a chance encounter permanently strips all illusions—and all meanings—from the world through which a traveler ventures.
But such a metaphysical dilemma turns into a theatrical one as Book continues. Under Marriott’s direction, Dunlap at first and then Detwiler (who, due to role doubling, gives a discerning performance as an older, unmoored Paul) portray a man who goes through life untouched, removed from the world and the people in it—the existential equivalent of the “boy in the bubble.” Given the work’s early, intentionally grotesque distortions of Buddhism, perhaps it is unsurprising that compassion only makes an entrance late in the work, when that bubble briefly pops and Paul’s character speaks openly of something he actually feels passionately about: an animal whose experience he believes represents his own.
Of course, the continuously falling dramatic arc of a character who doesn’t emotionally engage with anything until the last few pages of a script could build significant suspense: Will anything ever get through to Paul? Does anything ever interrupt his fall?
But here, relatively little suspense is ever generated. Is that due to the work's foreshadowing, or Dunlap and Marriot’s interpretation, which leaves Paul's early character an emotional cipher?
To a degree, perhaps so. But I think it’s far more significant that Turkel leaves entirely off-stage the only other undeniable moment when Paul expresses any truly deep emotion. It comes when the playwright and production presents us with the fact that Paul writes a death poem that becomes a generation-defining best-selling novel, while ensuring that no character ever utters a single word from it.
I conclude it’s probably the playwright who’s left Paul’s character more emotionally null in this script than the character actually would had to have been in life.
Would such an early soul cry have so upset the Mishima parallel he aims for in this work? Not necessarily. Crises have the potential to drive characters in a number of different directions: the one here could conceivably have reinforced and deepened the character’s previous estrangement. In fact, maybe it did—the incomplete evidence presented hardly rules it out. But it does seem a squandered opportunity that Paul’s novel remains only a device that permits further disengagement, when its contents appear to point in a markedly different direction—at least for a moment presently invisible in Turkel’s script.
As things stand, Paul and we both wonder if all of his experiences have been a cursed dream—and if it is, exactly when did it begin? In a literary agent’s office? In a room containing a sheet of paper—and a knife for seppuku? On a battlefield? Or in a prostitute’s lair, whose contents include a most uncanny pillow? That enigma, at least, haunts us at the end of this work.
I cannot hope to do STROKE/BOOK justice without mentioning an element even more haunting in Marriott’s staging of both works. We’ve all had the experience as readers in which a story's characters somehow seem to speak directly to us. It happens here as well at different points, when long-dead women from a Victorian era and a Japanese maiden from still another time address their words directly to the members of the audience.
In those moments where Marks, Kissane and Madorsky look us in the eye, the eeriest thing occurs, and it does so repeatedly. We who were outside of the story feel the direct tug as its characters pull us into it—out of our time and our world, into another.
When they do, the borders of Marriott’s little Noh shadow box shift. Without warning, we find that we are in it.
That’s direction—and acting—worthy of our highest praise.
Turkel’s and Marriott’s disquieting, all but superimposed final images confront us with what happens when cultures conflate sexuality with commerce, violence or power. Tragically, our own time has yet to learn that when a human desire and impulse so innate becomes so co-opted, disfigured or erased, the outcome cannot be good.
And so the lesson repeats. And, since it does, so do these harrowing images.