A few hours before the show, a friend told me about a performance Miguel Gutierrez once staged in the artist’s own Bensonhurst apartment. The apartment was small, about the size of a bed, and hot. Sweat soon drenched the bodies of the assembled crowd, and Gutierrez ordered everyone to take off their clothes. The line between performer and audience, public and private, self and other, blurred uncomfortably; skin slid against skin. Another time, she saw Gutierrez loose a blind dancer on a stage strewn with barbed wire–a set-up so unnerving that my friend actually ran from the theater crying.
So it wasn’t totally surprising that, in the corridor where the audience was queuing outside the theater at the PCPCA, an eery chorus of whoops and giggles was pouring from the PA system–a signal that Guttierez and the Powerful People had already spiked the Kool-Aid. This mildly addling tonic would soon kick in more fully–the piece opens with a blaring, mostly incomprehensible speech by a slurring drunk and gets stranger from there–but nearly from the outset, a love triangle provides a comforting, if gender-skewed, handhold in “Last Meadow.”
We know that a character based on James Dean (the drunk), played by a woman (Michelle Boule), is romantically involved with a girl played by a man (Tarek Halaby). In between is Dean’s buddy, a scruffy Lothario played by Gutierrez. (The power dynamic among them is established with a clever bit of physical theater that has broody Dean playing bestowing embraces, dispensing yawns, and peremptorily snuffing out a half-smoked cigarette, which everyone had been sharing, in his jeans pocket.) But soon the triangle explodes in all dimensions. A whispery voiceover eventually does some (sort of ham-fisted) scene-setting– “America is a disaster … no holds barred … unstoppable … unspeakably so … abandoned cities … no room for irony when there’s so much shit….”–but intermittent fragments of dialogue and gesture recycled from Dean’s films, “East of Eden,” “Rebel without a Cause,” and “Giant,” are the closest we come to a continuous storyline. Instead, “Last Meadow” presents itself as a tightly choreographed circus of sounds, words, and physical movements, elements ripped from all corners of high and low culture and banal reality and thrown together in the ring.
Music, cinema, dance-theater, and reality television are all here, selectively culled, mashed up and blown apart. Snippets of pop music race at alarming speed, then slow to real time, eclipsing dialogue in the style of rom-com montage. A maniacal dance workout tests the limits of physical endurance with crazy-funny moves like “Tits Talking,” “Stevie Wonder,” “Knee Energy,” and “Frank Gehry”. Performers take a simulated backstage break during which they mock their own costumes and discuss the art of Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo (wink, nod). An in a truly memorable simulated sex scene, Gutierrez and Halaby keep up their characters’ synchronized humping even as their explosions of passion hurl them yards apart on the stage.
Here as elsewhere, “Last Meadow” explores themes of control: who’s in control, how control is being exerted, how does the locus of control shift sometimes, not just in the dynamic tilt of a love triangle, but also in the slippery act of representation. In Gutierrez’s vision, emotions, desires, memories, myths, and recycled pop-culture images don’t just comprise the busy, discordant soundtrack of life, they compete frenziedly for dominance. Helped along by Neal Medlyn’s recorded score, Gutierrez proves himself a facile master of effects, and watching the bodies of the performers–whose pooch-guts and shaky arabesques would never make it past the first audition for “So You Think You Can Dance”–roil with emotional intensity and honesty, you feel a mental and visceral thrill of heightened awareness. It’s not clear how it all could ever come together, but it’s easy to just let go of meaning and take the ride.
So it’s disappointing that, when Boule, Halaby, and Gutierrez finally strip to their underwear and, to the strains of orgiastic dance music, leap and spin across the stage and into the theater aisles in “Last Meadow’s” rapturous dance finale, that’s all there is.
Not that their performances aren’t enthralling, not that the release of tension isn’t cathartic, but as a wrap-up for what was plugged as, and seemed to have been, an otherwise sharp and probing exploration of “an America where the jig is up and the dream has died,” it rings hollow. (So does the brief, formally neat but equally short-on-substance coda that follows.)
It would be silly, and against the grain of Gutierrez’s work, to ask for resolution of his characters’ emotional and moral conflicts (or even to speak of them as traditional “characters,” with stable identities and concerns), even though, somewhere in between all the screaming and discombobulation, the obliterated lines and insane antics, you actually end up caring about these people and what they feel–Dean’s brooding angst, the Girl’s plaintive longing, Lothario Guy’s perverse will to conquest. But you do want Gutierrez to take seriously the thing these fractured people and their unfulfilled yearnings embody: the modern American crisis of meaning that is, after all, the major theme of “Last Meadow.”
I can forgive Gutierrez for finessing this final alchemical reaction, since so much of “Last Meadow” does dazzle. But given his considerable powers of imagination, I wish his final act had yielded something more potent, or at least more interesting, than a cloud of endorphin-charged mist. His marvelously molten characters, and his ambiguously dark vision of last-ditch America, seemed to want some richer transubstantiation than this.