Performance Art : Dresher's 'Pioneer' Explores Psychological Frontiers


"Pioneer," a delirious sort of postmodern vaudeville from the Paul Dresher Ensemble, pulled into Royce Hall Friday evening for its local premiere. The surprise was how powerfully focused on psychological frontiers this exorcism of colonialism proved to be.

Columbus, Cortes, President McKinley and Admiral Peary troop through and sing a song or deliver a gag. The staging is garish and giddy, the music loud and multi-referential and most of the acting ritually over-the-top.

But the real juice is concentrated in the personal dilemmas and demons of Jo Harvey Allen's Widow. She is the one who grapples with the past at the existential level and stares into the future, in a vivid and characterful performance that quietly overthrows all the stylized mania around her.

There "Pioneer" departs from "Slow Fire" and "Power Failure," its predecessors in composer Paul Dresher's "American Trilogy" of music theater pieces. Long on neon alienation and thematic exaggeration, the earlier works lacked this element of rooted, human connectivity.

Rinde Eckert's Junior, the voluble collector of historical trivia whose death sets his widow on her internal voyage of exploration, is, however, the same loud, deceptively bent persona that dominated "Slow Fire" and "Power Failure." Here Eckert has another physically arduous part, but with rather less moralizing Angst.

And less singing too. In "Pioneer," Dresher contents himself mostly with richly murmurous backgrounds, the strophic songs advancing the real drama not at all until the final aria, an ode to the persistence of pioneering ego delivered by Eckert swaying above the stage in his cryogenic chamber.

Instead, the songs are mostly assigned in agitprop intermezzos to Eckert and tenor John Duykers, the latter at his estimable best as McKinley in patriotic underwear rationalizing the annexation of the Philippines. Duykers' tensely pressured singing contrasts sharply with his hilariously deft portrayal of the lounge lizard who condenses colonial exploitation into the ransacking of the widow's house.

As you may have guessed, as cultural argument this is hardly a critique of pure reason. Directed by Robert Woodruff and written by Eckert, Terry Allen and Jo Harvey Allen, "Pioneer" is more reductionist than revisionist, with self-conscious uncertainty one of its many levels.

That is most obvious in Terry Allen's Doug Sahm-flavored ballad, "Big Ole White Boys," sung with mournful sincerity by Eckert, who could be the prototype. Part accusation, part confession, it captures much of the ambivalence of this basically monocultural production.

The band, placed upstage behind a scrim, is simply virtuosic. Dresher plays guitars and manipulates the processing effects, behind the pertinently directed talents of Gene Reffkin (percussion), Phil Aaberg (keyboard) and Craig Fry (violin).

The set design, relying heavily on the sofa as mutable metaphor, is by Terry Allen, with evocative lighting by Larry Neff, sound (loud and louder) by Jay Cloidt and off-the-rack costume weirdness by Beaver Bauer.

"Pioneer" was repeated Saturday.

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