by JK Clarke
One of the saddest aspects of human social history is the regularity with which singular women—whether uncharacteristically intelligent, powerful or artistic—are all-too-frequently stamped with the stigma of “madness.” Well before Freud’s misogynistic mis-labelings, outspoken women were labelled “hysterical” and subjected to suppressive, and often barbaric, “treatments.” Jessica Scott’s (in collaboration with Anonymous Ensemble) engrossing new multi-disciplinary (puppetry, visual art, music and movement) theater piece, Ship of Fools, at HERE examines a cross-section of these women: some misunderstood, some mad and some merely threatening.
Because Ship of Fools is such a sensory overload of media, the takeaway is more experience-based than story-centric. The audience, in bleacher-like seats that turn out to be on wheels, is rotated again and again throughout the show to different performance spaces, facing new vignettes at every turn. Here there’s a woman in Victorian dress lying in repose, perhaps on a psychiatrist’s couch; over there what appears to be a robot or mannequin resembling a woman is disemboweled while facing us vertically, by disembodied hands emerging from behind, her organs dropped into pans; here again a woman stands before us delivering speeches from Jodie Foster (and others), while extreme closeup videos of their eyes hover over her. And so on, with each scenario portraying a woman, or women, possibly in crisis or possibly mentally unstable. The climax, not surprisingly somehow, is a headless, giant pink pantsuit—a modern day golem or Frankenstein—which floats above the stage while images and the voice of Hillary Clinton plays behind and around it. The moment, and the performance, climaxes when her head, represented by a balloon that has become gradually inflated, explodes, spewing glittery confetti all over the stage. While abstract, the messages are fairly straightforward: it’s a discussion of women driven to madness by the way they are treated in society.
While it’s difficult in the production’s 75 minute runtime to fully wrap one’s mind around some of the very profound and important statements being made (spoken text is largely drawn from Hélène Cixous’s 1975 largely academic and complex French feminist text, The Laugh of the Medusa) the means of delivering the message is impressive. Jessica Scott, who conceived the play, has done innovative work with her puppetry and imaginings, such as a head piece with a functioning child’s toy that features a small car driving around in loops. Performer Jessica Weinstein’s various present and intense performances are particularly noteworthy. And the show’s gorgeous music—composed by Alex Klimovitsky(music) and Eamonn Farrell (lyrics), performed by Liz Davito, Farrell, Klimovitsky and Gavin Price add an essential and ethereal depth to the piece.
Constantly visually and aurally stimulating, even if some scenes whiz past the audience, no matter: the seating will turn once again and another episode of madness on this Ship of Fools will unfold, and then another and another. It’s a stimulating piece that throws so many elements at us that at the next turn it’s over and we’re left with a lot to think about.
Ship of Fools. Through October 22 (10.30 PM Show tonight) at HERE (145 Sixth Avenue at Dominick Street). www.HERE.org
Photos: Richard Termine