The Bed Experiment
BACK IN MY pimply prepubescence I had the misfortune of reading a dime-store tract codifying a thing called "body language." The act of crossing one's legs, I learned, was a sort of cipher with a distinct meaning. An open palm equals honesty; the touching of the face, deception. Regrettably, at that age I was congenitally gangly and all but incontinent, limb-wise. So I gave up trying to enact any of this newfound knowledge. For all extents and purposes, I was a body language mute.
About a decade later I attended
a fund-raising open house at Kari Margolis and Tony Brown's Movement Theatre Center. In one exercise that evening, Margolis ran an actor through a simple routine involving a short, thin pole. It seems that when compared with the vertical axis, the controlled cant of the body can signify a discreet mood or emotion. Short of the murky complexity of modern dance, gestures, in their purest forms, convey a coherent content. Eureka. This demonstration was like phonics for my corporeal illiteracy.
In The Bed Experiment, an extraordinary 60-minute movement-theater piece first produced in 1987, Margolis Brown apply their singular physical vocabulary to the universal grammar of the species homo sapien. The titular, oversized bed is the habitat for four pairs of women and men; from the production's sleepy beginning to its frantic end, the bed serves as neonatal crib, mating ground, combat ring, and mortuary slab. The characters who populate this laboratory progress through a life-cycle of tumult wearing identical white face powder and black fright wigs. They resemble a cross between Cabaret's Joel Gray and Liza Minnelli; after the sweat starts flowing, their visages melt into Bette Davis's Baby Jane. The tribal garb is boxers and tidy ribbed tees.
Yet more impressive than the cast's costuming is the breathtaking uniformity of their movement: The echoed angle of eight bent arms or the synchronous sweep of 16 eyeballs. Performed in unison, the relationships among the pairs take on the quality of ritual. The men perch atop the PVC-pipe headboard like predatory vultures, with countenances ranging from moony to lascivious. From the foot of the bed, the women arch forward, hips lunging in clockwise rotation. The men slide down to the mattress, but remain in place like argonauts bound to masts before purring Sirens. The white gulf between the pairs is at once quantifiable and abstract. A minute later, the women wrap arms around their partner's shoulders and contract into a fetal curl, midair. When they lower their feet back to the bed they are hesitant, tentative; the sheet could be quicksand or lava. A relationship has moved from point A to point B and, without undue fuss, point C is looking frightening.
In roughly a dozen other such scenes, the individual subjects begin to differentiate from their undershirt tribe. One couple performs a graceful pas de deux while the other specimens watch from the floor in hushed disbelief. Astonishment turns to resentment as they begin to mouth hostile gibberish. One quick hip-toss later, love story becomes grudge match. Caresses yield to headlocks. Courtship segues into Saturday night's main event. In Margolis Brown country, conformity is king and individual action exacts a high cost.
In a related scene, gurgling infants lie supine like overturned insects, while their mothers hover above them voicing honey-tongued hypocorisms. Soon, only one character remains, lulled to sleep by a soundscape of the sea. He awakes to a rattling, and stands to confront the dream-state monsters below the bed. His yelps and howls are but yawps at a great unknown. It sucks him down like an undertow of the unconscious. Later, another actor approaches a similar abyss, dropping blindly, back-first, off the side of the bed. This time, the others actors reign him in with a top-sheet tether cinched around his waist. One senses the weight of his suspended body just off the ground and observes the malevolence in the faces of those anchoring his lifeline. No one gets out of here alive (a slogan later exemplified when the crew try to roll a corpse off the starboard side). Calling this a procrustean bed experiment would not be far from the truth.
Though the presentation throughout Margolis Brown's work is bold and original, it speaks to scripts we already know--behaviors that are familiar in the best sense of that word. For like it or not, we have all been on that bed before. The great comedy of The Bed Experiment--beyond the successful sight gags and appealing absurdity--is this self-recognition. The truism comes true: If we weren't laughing we'd be crying.
The Bed Experiment runs through November 30 at the Movement Theatre Center; call 339-2025.