Sexy Swan Song

For her final 15 Head production, Julia Fischer stages a sumptuous Chéri

As befits a production inspired by a triptych, the play consists of three sections, each very different in tone. Once Chéri exits the brightly underlit world of his mother and older lover, he abandons his new bride in favor of a garish, velvet-clad nightlife of sexual debauchery and opium dens, mostly represented by a group of shadowy, gyrating figures in frock coats calling out for him.

As befits a director who asks her performers to make collages, Fischer's take on Chéri very much has the feeling of an assemblage of disparate elements. These shadowy, dancing figures, for example, borrow some of their postures from Cubist images but borrow their pelvic motions from Elvis Presley in Kid Creole. The production is ultramodern in a way that even Colette couldn't have imagined. A brief scene of reconciliation between Chéri and Léa, for example, is directly inspired by the Dogma 95 movement, and may be the first time that this strict Danish esthetic has been translated to the stage. The former lovers, meeting on an unbalanced platform beneath a glaring spotlight, strap on body microphones like those worn by singers in Broadway musicals. They then scuffle briefly, every sharply expelled breath echoing as a cacophony through the sound system, until they pull each other to the ground and make brutal love to each other, whispering tender words into one another's ears. Again these words are amplified, and their desperation is palpable. It's a thrilling piece of stagework, muscular and terrifying, a grim counterpoint to the stylized love scenes that played out earlier in the production.

"It is ironic that this is my last show," Fischer declared in response to the impromptu toasts in her honor, standing before her enormous bouquet, after the play's opening. "This is the first time it really felt like we knew what we were doing."

This is a sentiment that was repeated throughout the evening. Chéri, because of the six-week workshop and because the performers have grown familiar with Fischer's process of creating a play, feels somehow more finished than past 15 Head Productions. "Often, when we get to the point where we open a play, I feel like this is where we should be starting with the process," dramaturge Chad Sylvain admitted to me (his words were later repeated almost verbatim by Fischer). "Some of our productions have been just barely comprehensible, if that."

Chéri, in contrast, is perfectly comprehensible, even at its most abstract, such as its final scene, which consists of nothing but the play's characters riding bicycles in slow arcs around the main character, muttering non sequiturs at him. Fischer leaves 15 Head just at the moment when her distinct approach to theater seems to have fully coalesced.

And her approach is distinct, make no mistake. There are precious few models for collectively created theater like that found at 15 Head, so much of the process employed by the company was invented by Fischer. "She just made it up," Sylvain explains. "I've been there for it, and I've seen her just make it up."

Alas, this is a story that threatens to become common in Twin Cities theater: Just as our talent pool matures enough to produce really interesting art, it has matured too much to be able to afford to devote the time and resources theater requires without reasonable compensation.

So this past Thursday was Fischer's last opening night, for a while at least, and she leaves the company in the hands of its members. The next season will consist of two shows, the first directed by Leiseth, the second by Sylvain. "We're really beginning to feel like a company," Fischer declared. After the speeches and impromptu toasts had been made, the Red Eye stage was turned into a makeshift dance floor and dance music boomed out from the speaker system. Jaidee Forman and Kat Carrol, both trained as dancers, invented spontaneous New Wave shuffles and, gesturing for Fischer to join them as Romeo Void played, singer Debora Iyall sneered out the words to "Never Say Never": "I might like you better if we slept together."

"Especially if it's fancy sex!" Carrol called out.

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