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Finally, a really good reason to have seen Black Swan (other than being able to talk about it when people say, “Oh—you’re a dancer. What did you think of Black Swan?”) Without enduring those 100 minutes of melodrama, I don’t think I could have fully appreciated SWAN!!!, an ingenious parody of the psychological thriller—or dark comedy, or, just, comedy, as some have argued—by Jack Ferver’s QWAN (Quality Without a Name) Company. This hour-long reading of the riotously reimagined script, created collaboratively by Ferver and four other members of QWAN, enjoyed a sold-out four-show run at P.S. 122 this past weekend.
In all the buzz surrounding Black Swan (to which I’ll stop contributing after this post—promise), the question of how seriously to take it has been up for debate. “Is Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s tawdry thriller, a work of camp?” asked Dennis Lim in a recent Slate article—and if so, intentionally, naively, or somewhere in between? Did Aronofsky, for instance, mean for that hulking black-feathered villain, sneaking up on Nina/Natalie, to seem more like a caricature of scary than actually scary?
Whatever the case, there’s much to be spoofed in the saga of the chaste perfectionist unearthing her “dark side,” and QWAN artfully seizes upon it in this side-splitting satire. (Their earlier piece Notes!!! gave Notes on a Scandal a similar treatment, starring Philip Taratula—whose touring schedule prevented him from appearing in SWAN!!!—as the Judi Dench character.) No major plot upheavals here (except at the end—more on that later): the group sticks to the storyline but reveals its ridiculousness at every paranoid, look-alike-producing turn. And for all its raunchy and grotesque humor—if Nina had fake-vomited only once or twice, I would have been fine with that—SWAN!!! is ultimately an uplifting example of art begetting (better) art.
As if not to distract from the awesomeness of the cast, Ferver (who plays Mila Kunis playing Nina’s bad-girl doppelganger, Lily) keeps the presentation simple: The actors sit in a row of chairs, scripts in hand, dramatically narrating key scenes and rehashing dialogue, much of which comes straight from the movie, but with plenty of hilarious revisions. In the case of Nina (whose obtuse side is marvelously played up by Jenn Harris, in pink leotard and wrap skirt) we’re also treated to the character’s inane internal ramblings. “Everything in here is black and white,” she says ditzily, when artistic director Tomas (Christian Coulson, who does a great over-the-top French accent) takes her back to his expensive-looking apartment, a jab at the film’s overwrought light-and-dark symbolism. And later, breathless mid-performance: “I literally just turned into a black swan!”
Something irritates me about Natalie Portman, and I can never really put my finger on it. Harris, though, seems to know exactly what it is, which makes her performance a joy to watch. She looks nothing like the actress, but manages to bear an uncanny resemblance, through vocal inflections and facial mannerisms alone: the quivering pout, the lips and cheeks and forehead twitching and contorting with anxiety. The same goes for Randy Harrison, as Barbara Hershey playing Nina’s overbearing mom, and Matthew Wilkis, as Winona Ryder’s washed-up prima ballerina character, who here just goes by “Winona.”
Ferver is as much a choreographer as a dramaturg, but there's minimal dancing in SWAN!!!; most of it happens seated, with the upper body. To demonstrate the series of turns she’s trying to master, Nina holds her index finger erect in the air and whips her forearm in a circle, sometimes joined by the men. “Fouetté! Fouetté! Fouetté!” they chant. (In her essay "Notes on Camp" Susan Sontag listed Swan Lake as one “random example” of the genre. If you asked a choreographer to name the campiest part, they would probably point to the 32 fouettés, so iconic they’ve attained the status of a dance cliché.)
Throughout the show, I wondered how the company would handle the climax, which in the film, admittedly, is pretty gripping. Could they sustain the tension without letting it deflate too soon? They finessed that challenge with a surprise twist: Just as Nina ascends the “staircase” from which she’ll fall to her death, she suddenly has a golden statue in hand. With all the nervous “ums” and “ahs” intact, Natalie effusively accepts her Oscar, thanking a long list of collaborators, including “me, me, me.”
Personally, I’d like to thank Aronofsky for making Black Swan so that QWAN could make brilliant fun of it.
[This article was originally posted on 3/12/11 and updated on 3/14/11.]