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By Laura Molzahn
Museum of Contemporary Art
Oct. 27–Nov. 6, 2011
Performance reviewed: Nov. 3
What do you get when you cross a dancer with a clown? Finely calibrated movement tinged with violence and a sense of danger—and comedy, of course. So what better subject than marriage?
Julia Rhoads, head of Chicago’s Lucky Plush Productions, is no stranger to humor. Her witty, high-spirited 2009 Punk Yankees looked at Internet-facilitated dance piracy. With The Better Half she turned her gaze on a subject closer to home but held fast to her pop-culture bent and gift for humor. This time around, she had some help—from co-creator and co-director Leslie Buxbaum Danzig of 500 Clown, a Chicago troupe specializing in riotous, usually wordless deconstructions of inherently unfunny classics like Macbeth and Frankenstein.
The primary source for The Better Half was George Cukor’s 1944 noir film Gaslight, a murder mystery/melodrama in which a man aims to convince his wife she’s crazy. Some of the texts in this 75-minute dance-theater work came from that film as well as five others, including Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 Scenes From a Marriage and Robert Ludlum’s 2002 The Bourne Identity. The scripted elements that Rhoads and Danzig have supplied keep the stray threads, if not tidy, at least contained.
The Better Half opens with a “director” seated in the house and three self-conscious performers onstage with little to do till the fourth arrives, late, running down the theater aisle. Personas slip and slide as the performers repeatedly go off-script, delivering what seem to be spontaneous asides. This switching from everyday life to theater and back again sets up the piece’s unstable universe, which spins ever further out of control.
In fact, watching The Better Half is like swimming up from the depths of a dream—except it starts with “real life” and swims down. At first the performers’ personas are polite and ordinary, if self-conscious, but they devolve into crazed, monstrous beings immersed in their own needs. The rich vein of humor in The Better Half becomes progressively darker, saturated with the fear and sorrow of a relationship falling apart. Nothing impressed me more about this piece than the way the creators and performers juggled the hysterical and the tragic.
Rhoads’s choreography underscores character and plot. A complicated repeating sequence for the husband and wife, complete with fancy handshake, suggests greeting and parting as well as an abstracted sexual encounter, which becomes less thrilling and more hostile with every repetition. Rhoads, tiny and quick, was equally adept at tumbling across the floor into the wings and orbiting her husband, performed by Adrian Danzig. Also a 500 Clown member—and married to director Buxbaum Danzig—he was a sturdy partner and nuanced actor.
Tim Heck had a memorable turn, running onstage from his post as the director, morphing into a detective, and single-handedly playing out the backstory. Expert physical comedians Meghann Wilkinson and Kim Goldman turned on a dime to create a sense of female solidarity with Rhoads in fluidly danced lyrical sections.
But the heart of The Better Half is the married couple. They may be whipsawed by a tumbling sequence of stories and scripts, but ultimately no challenge can derail their sublime, ridiculous relationship.
Photos by William Frederking, courtesy MCA.