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Flash Review 2, 3-10: Prisons
Incarcerated with Mabou Mines at P.S. 122

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

"I know that happiness is popular.
People love to listen to a happy man.
His face is lovely.

"The crippled tree in the yard
Accuses the bad earth, but
Those that pass by call it a cripple
And rightly so.

"I can't see the green boats on the Sound
And the jolly sails at sea.
All I see is the torn net of the fisherman.
Why do I only sing about
The crooked backs of aging cottagers?
Young maiden's breasts
Are warm as ever.

"When I sing a song,
A rhyme seems almost arrogant to me.

There is a struggle in my heart
Between enthusiasm for apple-blossom
And horror at a Hitler-speech.
And yet it's only the latter
That drives me to my desk."

--Bertolt Brecht, "Bad Times for Poetry"

Encased in acrylic, the women were protected perfection: not a worry nor a line disturbing their serene porcelain-colored faces. Nightgown-like dresses. Prone forward, ready. Butterflies, beautifully caught. This was at an opening Thursday at the CFM Gallery in Soho, where the work of the late Frederick Hart was on exhibition. Uptown a little ways, at Performance Space 122 in the East Village, a different kind of prison: Mabou Mines, a grandmother in the experimental theater scene celebrating its 30th anniversary, was drawing a parallel between a modern day housekeeper or homemaker, and destitute Mexican women who entered a place called Belen in the 17th to 19th centuries, seeking sanctuary, and finding a permanent prison.

I'm not sure how accurate this Flash will be. Context: I was in my own minor prison at the show last night, a body whose swollen little toe was throbbing, so much so that I ditched one of the oxblood red boots for a flip-flop. In other words, I was irritable, and sitting in any theater watching any play, let alone a didactic one, might have been a chore. More, um, important, me not being a woman, any positivity that would have come from the warm sensation of empathy was more remote, so what I received was an onslaught of wrenching music, dance, poetry, text, and song. I found myself wistfully wishing for the San Francisco Mime troupe--a cousin of the Mines--which laces its agit-prop with madcap comedy and satire. There, in performances in green parks, the screeves are leavened by mirth, as right-wing targets are inevitably skewered, the bad guy caught while there is still time to free the damsel from the tracks.

No such mitigants from Mabou Mines, presenting "Las Horas de Belen--A Book Of Hours," in its first appearance in its longtime neighbor's theater. An example of the white text which scrolled down against a black curtain, some of it sung by Liliana Felipe: "A guy can fuck you over without even pulling out his cock." You get the idea. And why maybe a guy isn't the best candidate to review this show!

Recogimiento de Belen, according to a program note, was a sanctuary created by the Catholic Church in Mexico City in 1683 to give refuge to single women without means of support. Once a women entered, the program states, she could never leave, causing some to go insane and/or commit suicide. Mabou Mines uses this history to draw a parallel to the more modern prison of a wife or servant, as enacted by Jesusa Rodriguez, as she irons, knits, and performs other menial tasks with a heaviness that likens them to a sort of Chinese water torture. All this while Liliana Felipe performs cantos on a piano--her music, lyrics by Catherine Sasanov--that recount Belen and the sufferings of women in general. And with occasional "outbursts"--that's how the program describes them--by Monica Dionne, atop a cell-like platform, enacting the words of Sasanov, which also refer to the prison. All this is directed by a Mines founder, Ruth Maleczech. The press release jauntily promises that although this multi-media work is "very intenseá, it is the beauty of the projections and the music and the way it is performed that provides an uplifting character to the work as a whole." Beautiful suffering? Perhaps. Uplifting? A stretch.

So, "my problem" with this creation, overall--the quotes are because it may just be "my problem"--is with the San Francisco-ness of it all. That is to say that, with the exception of the Mime Troupe, there's a San Francisco style which believes it's enough to present the tragic facts of an oppression, and, presto, theater! In a way, my aesthetic problem with this approach is the same as with Frederick Hart's acrylic and bronze women. Is a factual depiction-of beauty or horror-art? There's little metaphor-izing, no real parable-izing, and no fable-izing here. Just the facts, ma'am. Even the music is of one tone--a Brecht-Weill approach that's appropriate to a political subject, no doubt, but whose monotony wears and is even at times astringent. And yet the play itself is not quite as grotesque as Brecht. I guess what I'm driving at is that I can take a tragedy, appreciating its art even if the story depresses me, but this "Book of Hours" seems more like a lecture, a diatribe.

The only exception to this is Rodriguez's choreography, and her execution of it. Think popping and locking as if the popper and locker were controlled, marionette style, and powerless. As Anita Gates noted in her Times review last year, it's a sort of silent movie affect. This does get across--artistically--that Rodriguez's Woman is thought of just as a baby-producing, work-fulfilling machine.

Similarly, Dionne's voice is lyricism itself. There is also some lyricism in Sasanov's poetry, as when Dionne says, resignedly, of the worker-woman, "The one thing she can call her own is other people's dirt."

Julie Archer's sets and projections, too, reconstructing a claustrophobic household, convey the compressed domestic space in which the modern woman is imprisoned.

And yet--and yet--I must add that there is more beauty in the bared breast of Rodriguez's imprisoned woman than of Hart's. The latter is ultimately fake; it's not life; life is not that perfect. As Rodriguez slouches, presses a knife beneath her breast, and later smears that breast and the rest of her torso with egg and then flour, her breast--and the Woman whose serf's life she is describing--say more about the real beauty of Woman, which is not in her God-given anatomical gifts, but in her ability to bear her earth-born burdens with grace and dignity.

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