First Impressions: “Penelope” and “Tongue Tied” at the Transmodern Festival by Bret McCabe

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There is no reason why the site of six people braiding six white sheets into a rope should be so disarmingly and bewilderingly transfixing, but that’s exactly what the ethereal musical performance “Penelope” somehow pulls off at this year’s Transmodern Festival. It’s a song cycle by Michael Willis, who is joined by his Lurch and Holler bandmate Liz Downing in the performance, turned into a combination of musical theater, animation, shadow puppetry, and acrobatics, directed by by the incomparable Laure Drogoul.

I can’t entirely describe the adventure “Penelope” tells but, given the players involved, am guessing it’s a riff of sorts on Odysseus’ wife in Homer’s epic poem. For years Willis and Downing have set ancient poetry or lyrics inspired by ancient poetry into primal American folk music song forms. Costumer John Flowers—a brief aside: seriously, when is Flowers and the genderfucking early 1990s Baltimore drag troupe House of Frau going to get the serious museum/gallery retrospective they deserve? (see the doctorial dissertation for an introduction)—outfits the cast in togas, robes, and makeup/accessories we might read as Hellenistic. And experiencing the entire thing has this whiff of the mythic about it. It’s simple but profound, narratively obtuse but emotionally captivating. And drinking it in is one of the more magical ways to spend roughly a half hour.

Penelope photo by Robin Corbet

Quite simply, “Penelope” is a hauntingly gorgeous plunge into another world. Willis, as always, makes seemingly simple folk songs achieve the captivating drama of musical theater and, full confession, I’d listen to Downing sing the user’s manual to a piece of heavy machinery. (How last year’s The Book of Amy, a trio of Downing, Half Japanese’s Mark Jickling, and the Orthotonics’ Rebby Sharp, didn’t light up every folk and out-music fans blogs is one of god’s own little mysteries.) Poses by the acrobatic duo the Dandy Vagabonds provided some of the yogatastic shadow forms in the production, Laurence Arcadias created some of the animations projected onto the white-sheet screens/curtains, and performers Selena Schreyer, the irreplaceable Joe Meduza, Isa Leal, and Diane Hugé rounded out the cast. Drogoul sat at the back of the audience occasionally providing diffuse fill lighting, which she achieved by cupping her hand over a flashlight and permitting a few beams to seep between her fingers.

This defiantly low-tech production created a series of the more indelible waking-dream images of recent memory. The Dandy Vagabonds formed shadows of multi-armed and –legged creatures behind a sheet. Meduza, in skyscraper-tall platform shoes, runway walks across the stage wearing a mask that turned his head into some mythical creature. Willis slow marches across the stage strumming an acoustic guitar and singing a commanding tune, disappearing behind the curtain stage right and the entire cast erupting into an arresting series of unisons yells, equal pars revival-tent worship and deep wood fright. The cast, backlit, walks into white sheets to become faceless spectral forms.

Other old timers might recognize that Downing, Drogoul , Flowers, and Willis were part of the creative team behind Lambs Eat Ivy’s “Ghost Girl” performance from the early 1990s, and “Penelope” achieves the same kind of sublime fugue state in the brain, somehow tying the experience of being a human the right now to the so long ago that it might be embedded into our DNA. Take rope braiding mentioned earlier. I have no idea why the site of six people, each holding an edge of a white six, walking in concentric circles make the braid is both visually stunning and emotionally potent, but it is, for reasons that aren’t immediately translatable into words right now even though I want to tell everybody about it. Don’t miss tonight’s performance at 8:15 at the EMP Collective.


“Tongue Tied,” which will be performed three more times this weekend at the festival, also leaves an unforgettable impression, but it’s not quite as seamlessly accomplished. It’s an interactive piece of performance theater curated by Sophia Mak, and it seems to be using the issues of white privilege as a springboard to address other things people might take for granted. I think. It’s abstract, sometimes to the point of being obtuse.

It begins by asking every audience member to choose a word written on a tile—fast, white, thug, human, lies, love, etc. On the front of each word tile is a question—name an artist who is a black woman, name three black women you know personally, what do you love about black women, what do you hate about black women—that audience members respond to on the back. The tiles are then tied around our necks and worn as necklaces for the duration of the performance; at the end we trade them, read them aloud, and hang them as part of the set.

Exactly how this pre-performance ritual calibrates the brain for what follows never comes into focus; it does kinda put you in a headspace where you might be confronted with something uncomfortable, which “Tongue Tied” really only delivers once. At the performance’s start we’re all hustled into a single room, where an African-American woman comes in and addresses us as if she’s a job applicant and we’re the people interviewing her. She passes out a few copies of her resume and then takes a seat in a small room like a glass booth. She begins answer to unasked interview questions, and when she gets to the part about telling us a little bit about herself, she can’t. She tries, but nothing but nonsense comes out. She keeps trying; it’s still noise. She’s becoming the tongue tied intimated by the performance’s title, but it’s not clear if she can’t get the words out to describe herself because she doesn’t posses that vocabulary, if the act of describing the self of a black woman in America doesn’t exist, if we can’t understand what she’s saying, or some combination of all of the above.

It’s almost painful to watch, but the performance doesn’t entirely capitalize on that discomfort. What follows are a series of duets—two dancers who appear to bounce from moving in unison to practically fighting with each other for the same space, and two men who use a roll of a dice to dictate what they’ll be doing (convulse, act like a cannibal, mimic each other, etc.) I kept searching for what connecting these duo performances, riffs on relationships in some ways, to the first, but the only thing my brain came up with while watching was people really trying to do something but not getting there, the hard work of failure.

After the duo of two men Gerry Mak casually walks into the room, crosses the wood floor to a small altar-like area in the back, gets on his knees, and very, very slowly becomes overcome. Your mileage may vary from the other aspects of “Tongue Tied,” but the time-stopping minutes of this performance and worth the adventure. He begins to make deep breathing sounds that are part winded by exercise and part sobs from life-altering grief. He repeats enigmatic reassurances like “It’s OK” and “I’ll do it” until he’s screaming them. He remains on his knees, lighting incense and placing them into something in front of him. It’s unbearably intimate, like you’ve walked into a hospital’s chapel and caught somebody desperately bargaining with an unseen power to save a loved one’s life. Mak follows this by picking up the item in front of him, which was a cake last night, and, while still overcome, offering it to every audience member in the room on his knees. It is profoundly unsettling, an invasion of your personal comfort zone that “Tongue Tied” seems to be aiming for but doesn’t consistently achieve.

Author Author Bret McCabe is a haphazard tweeter, epic-fail blogger, and a Baltimore-based arts and culture writer.

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