As if attending a boxing match, the audience at L.A. Contemporary Exhibitions sat around a hollow square Friday under painfully harsh, uncolored light. Once again, the Chicago-based collective Goat Island had come to town with intense movement theater depicting societal processes of brutalization.
Three years ago, the company presented “Soldier, Child, Tortured Man” on a Hollywood basketball court and, while tightening the audience-performer relationship, its new piece also used sports seating to make the spectators part of the spectacle.
When watching the performers onstage, we also saw banks of people beyond who were looking back at us. Thus, starting with its floor plan, Goat Island defined multiple planes of confrontation.
The earlier work portrayed patterns of male oppression, but “Can’t Take Johnny to the Funeral” centered on the helplessness and instinctual actions of children. Sometimes, the performance became a group tantrum, with the four company members sitting on the floor and angrily kicking their feet, lashing their spines or trying to tear off one another’s legs.
Elsewhere, they carried plastic baby dolls--methodically cradling them, passing them around, dropping them, dismembering them. From the child-victim’s perspective, parental discipline became a series of grotesque action motifs (a snakelike “shhhhh!,” for instance, with finger pressed against lips) or wistful tales of manipulation: “She made me stand with my face to the wall. She said she loved me.”
Ideas about children as property, as prisoners, as initiates in a life-cycle of violence emerged through text, gesture and, especially, the engulfing physical interaction.
“What do we do with all of our fears?,” a song asked. “Do we whisper them in a loved-one’s ears?” Goat Island offered no answer, no comfort--this definitely wasn’t “Sesame Street.”
In the work’s final statement about vulnerability, the others stripped Matthew Goulish to his underpants and slowly bandaged his neck, stomach, knees with surgical tape. They then dressed him again--and, in a bitter coda, attached arrow-shafts to the bandages, turning their passive, uncomprehending child-figure into the image of Saint Sebastian, Christian martyr.
Ironically, the sequence also exposed another kind of martyrdom by showing the audience the knee bandage and leg brace that Goulish wore. Like the Belgian Ultima Vez company that visited Los Angeles in early October, Goat Island relied on raw, assaultive physicality: bodies lifting, hurling, slamming one another at high speed. And that approach generated high excitement, but at a potentially high cost.
One motif involved the performers executing a whiplash turn-in-place and then falling out of it face down to the floor. Repeat that 8, 9, 10 times in a row and you’ve made an unforgettable statement about risk--but aren’t you also pushing yourself towards inevitable injury? Or does a dangerous loss of control occur only at the 12th, 13th or 14th repetition?
In its thematic choices, Goat Island’s political stance may be admirable, but isn’t director Lin Hixson victimizing Goulish, Greg McCain, Timothy McCain and Karen Christopher in exactly the same way that the children in the piece are victimized?
Yes, the performers are willing, skillful participants, just as prizefighters are. Theirs is an assumed risk. But even in a boxing ring, there are supposed to be limits.