One of the many admirable things about MKT is the way each of them seem to maintain their idiosyncratic authority in the face of the two others’ equally idiosyncratic authority. The collecting of their three visions into a single performance creates a particular kind of tension. It makes for a precarious and volatile mix in which anything and everything might disperse at any moment. There is excitement in this tension. But the tension is not gratuitous or voyeuristic. We don’t watch it as disastrous spectacle (will it fall apart?) or as a feat of juggling (can they hold it together?). The tension is more central to the meaning, or knowledge, that the experience of the work conveys. We watch because, at its best, it’s a performance that maintains a bewildering and fragile internal state, a state that offers access to a freedom of unexpected image and meaning-creation.
But something happened on the way to the usual MKT chaos/excitement this time. Maybe it was the broken artwork that was meant to be the set, stage and context all-in-one. Maybe it was the outdoor venue. Maybe it was chance. But my feeling is that somehow there was some capital-T Theater involved here.
It wasn’t their use of text or language in performance, because that’s in their DNA and they do it well. I don’t think it was the multiple performers, or the ship metaphor that flip-flopped its way through the entire piece from the costumes to the tooth-brushing. It wasn’t the adamant adherence to the trivial that becomes nonsensical, and consequentially a rich source of meaning. That’s all just everyday MKT.
Furthermore, the early lying-in-the-blow-up play-pool (white gown [Mad], snorkel/wetsuit [King], bikini [Thomas]) was a typically great MKT image: three independent embodiments of a theme that led to a single complex interwoven image offering multiple interpretations without falling into either didactic rigidity or meaningless…flaccidity. But there was something.
About this Theater thing. Yes, Theater may be one of my own idiosyncratic whipping boys (a subject for performance right there), but that doesn’t make it irrelevant. And given the collaboration at hand, this is my foray into the unknown.
I don’t think this was a play, although apparently they had to learn lines. And even if they all represented Violet Jessop (or none of them did or maybe it was just Theresa), I don’t think it was representation of character that gave this piece a heavy blanket that I kept waiting for our plucky trio to break through to emerge triumphant.
To me it seemed that there was a deeper, less easily articulated, underlying conception that deflected the open amalgamation of possibility (read: awesome sparkle) of this piece. From my seat it looked like MKT was doing Theater — unusual, physical, referential, liberal-arts-informed, pomo-dance-loving — but Theater nonetheless.
Theater is full of pretense. Many people believe that pretense is central to theater — after all, we are not watching King Henry at Agincourt fighting the French in the 15th century, right? Those are actors: just pretending. I trust you’ve heard that argument? That kind of pretense is available everywhere and is no big deal (mimesis, more or less). The pretense I’m talking about is a deeper, more subtle thing. It is a way of thinking about theater. It makes theater into an intermediate step between what is experienced and a separate reality. It is a mode of reference. Theater as ghost, as symbol, as legibility. It refers, through pretense, and that is how meaning is created.
I hold that theater is a bigger house than that and can fit more than pretense. It can work in many other different ways. Ever since at least when theater could use Beckett’s emptiness, Robert Wilson’s pace, Meredith Monk’s voice, and Tadeusz Kantor’s imagination, not to mention the work of so many (more contemporary) others, theater no longer needs to remain satisfied with the mere ease of familiar pretense. It doesn’t have to work only that way.
Don’t get me started on the difference between dance and theater. Categories are there to exclude. (But just so I don’t leave you hanging, here’s the difference: theater counts “1, 2, 3, 4…” and dance counts “5, 6, 7, 8…”.) So it doesn’t matter whether you call something dance or call it theater — that’s for the bean counters.
But it does make a great deal of difference how you think about what you are making. And the thinking behind this piece was different than other MKT work I’ve seen. This thinking made a Theater piece. Not because it had characters, scenes, props and a script. Not because it fulfilled any kind of conventional theatrical structure. But because underlying its creation in a way that must have been preliminary, ab ovo (to get all Latin on your ass), is a way of thinking about how theater works as pretense. And that difference affects everything, cumulatively and in small ways, until we are trapped under it.
Which is actually the direct the opposite of how the best MKT performance has worked, does work, and will work again to free us from our stubborn habits of impoverished dreaming. Here’s to making things more awesome.
Mad King Thomas with Justin Maxwell
“The Weather Is Always Perfect”
WAC Sculpture Garden
July 19, 2014