Following up their first full-length narrative “Aspiration: Housewife” (reviewed exclusively for Associated Content-click here), the Odonata Dance Project’s “Etymology of a Person” turns from satirizing the dull, deadening non-life of the perfect, idyllic, suburban existence to searching for life and spirit in the depths of the underworld. The plot, such as it is, follows a group of souls competing in a series of reality-television-style challenges for the right to re-ascend to Earth; she who collects the most pomegranates wins. While facing an uphill climb in terms of sifting through its murky abstractions, “Etymology of a Person” ultimately emerges as a work of affecting if confused beauty.
The audience is greeted with the image of an intriguing glowing red fingerprint, foreshadowing the theme of identity, and a couple of boxes and compartments and retro bits-and-pieces; the glint of a piece of chrome is enough to instantly recall the world of appliances, and all things 1950s consumerism, of “Aspiration: Housewife”. The savvy theatergoer is advised to sit toward the back of the house: director-choreographer Jessica Bonenfant stages the show as a cinematographer might frame for widescreen, with the whole cast onstage and all doing different things more often than not; this reviewer chose a front-row seat, granting the desired intimacy of a cabaret but too often resulting in the loss of visual information. Mirroring a television theme that crops up, by presenting an overwhelming choice of characters to watch all neatly lined up, Bonenfant forces the viewer to pick one or two performers to attend to at once, resulting in either picking a program and sticking with it, or channel surfing-except, to torture the metaphor, that most of the cast never gets a ‘commercial break’.
In picking cast members to watch, Carolyn Siegel makes the obvious default choice, and fortunately proves herself worthy of the status. As the fresh meat in hell, she serves as our entry point into the story, as confused as we are, but willing to play along. One of the most unfailingly watchable young performers in New York today, Siegel’s confident smile, dark locks, rich voice and commanding presence bring to mind a young Catherine Keener, but she takes herself in an unexpected direction here with broader strokes and a potentially neurotic character out of Debra Messing’s playbook, getting the biggest laugh of the night upon explaining an art piece entitled “Confusion”, which, she informs us after some thought, is meant to represent confusion.
The Odonata Dance Project has incorporated aerialists and other circus performers into its smaller shows before, but in “Etymology of a Person” the talented Bronwyn Sims and her aerial hammock are made part of the story rather than a sideshow. (This is a welcome rarity, as finding narrative roles for aerialists has historically proven daunting for even the most experienced of dramaturges.) Sims moves with eerie catlike stealth and power, slipping into a supernatural role with equal parts of the graceful and the creepy; this reviewer speaks from experience in saying that to be approached by her for an audience participation segment is to learn the meaning of the word ‘unnerving’. Recognizing the novelty of the aerial act, Bonenfant smartly keeps Sims out of the main group of women, watching from her perch above as the acts are performed, allowing us to enjoy the dance down below while knowing there’s a performer just outside our focal point that could distract us at any time. Paradoxically, this actually enhances Sims’ performance by allowing us to focus on her character rather than her stunts! It’s a brave and ultimately mature choice; a less confident director would have used the aerialist’s considerable skill as a crutch or distraction.
But the surprise standout among the cast is Errin Delperdang out of left field as the reality TV fixture of the contestant who will do anything to win. In past Odonata productions, Delperdang has been on hand purely for broad comedy, beaming throughout the most uninhibited of acts and the occasional striptease, but here her considerable charm is twinned with a sad streak and even a turn for the dramatic. Yes, it’s impressive that she spends the bulk of the show on roller skates (insert “Starlight Express” joke here), and yes, she cuts a striking image in tomboyish short overalls and funky knee socks (not forgetting, let us reiterate, the roller skates) that almost cast her as a wacky 1980s-inspired fashion disaster by way of Pippi Longstocking. She of course deftly handles this like a pro, but among so much surrealism, a memorable sight is but a drop in a bucket, and thus it’s the little moments that make Delperdang so worth watching: a self-satisfied finger-stroke, as one might use to pet a small furry pet, of a hard-won pomegranate prize when she thinks no one’s looking; a tentative sticking-out of a nervous tongue before raising her hand to answer a trivia question; a childlike hunch-over to undo her roller skates before surveying the scene with older, sadder and wiser eyes.
One may be spoiled for choice in terms of people to watch, but don’t look to the plot for guidance on who or what is important. “Etymology of a Person” is not a title one applies to a straightforward, simple story, and suffice to say that the work does not disappoint. Copiously devoid of writer credits, it is puzzling to decipher, and the first scene or two, where the bulk of the unfortunately stilted dialogue and exposition is frontloaded, promises a difficult evening ahead. However, for all the concern generated, a curious thing happens; there comes a point in the show where everything slows down for a dreamlike, hypnotic number that-not in a bad way-seems to go on forever, and it is somewhere in here that you either begin to get it, or at least think you do. Much like acclimating to the water temperature during a swim, you don’t notice the point where what’s washing over you seems comfortable until the point has already passed… and, like swimming, once you’re comfortable, you don’t want to get out.
It is somewhere in this lengthy scene that the best moment of the show comes in; Siegel and Delperdang, rivals throughout the competition, dance together. In this shared moment, Siegel’s spunk and anger give way to resigned acceptance of death ahead, and Delperdang somehow weds melancholy with roller skates. It is an image both original and incongruous, and thus quite haunting.
It’s moments like these that make the confusing clutter of “Etymology of a Person” worth sorting through. No doubt in part due to the sporadic collaborative workshop sessions that birthed the work, concepts and images come from all sides like an explosion at a script factory on the decidedly art-house side of town. Not one but three characters are foreigners, two of whom do not speak English, and a separate character entirely speaks not a word, but types on an old-fashioned typewriter to express herself in clicks and clacks like Artoo-Detoo by way of the percussion section. Among these more quirky sorts of characters, more successful is Erin Cairns as a loopy blonde with classically striking all-American-girl-next-door good looks and, at the beginning, a repeated interest in writing and sending letters; this thread seems to vanish by the wayside, and it is never explained why she seems to be joined at the hip, metaphorically or otherwise, with some sort of lower-class Brit, but never mind.
“Etymology of a Person” is next scheduled to appear at the Boulder International Fringe Festival this August. While lacking the accessibility of “Aspiration: Housewife” and thus not for the first-time avant-garde dance theatre patron, it is an admirable sophomore effort whose flaws are only in reaching too far, leaving the audience scratching their heads in that pleasantly confused manner, as if piecing together a dream from last night even as sunlight chases the darkness away.