We All Live in Humansville

By Ann Murphy


“So I found / that hunger was a way/ of persons outside windows/ that entering takes away.” Emily Dickinson

No one who attended Thursday’s production of Humansville, or any other night’s for that matter, saw exactly the same show. That’s because director/choreographer Joe Goode, maker of wry, ambling tales of quotidian yearning, gave us choices — of doors to enter, scenes to view, order to follow and narrative organization to build as we progressed from one Humansville vignette or moment to another. The instructions were simple: enter by one of two doors. Walk around for half an hour. Each segment would be repeated three times, presumably affording all viewers a chance to see each of the dramas. Then take a seat.

I chose to enter via the park, and as I made the choice I was already embarking on a self-conscious assessment of why I was choosing what. I plunged into the darkened Forum space and immediately encountered cellist Joan Jeanrenaud on a small platform. Standing a long time listening to her haunting harmonic composition, I nearly forgot that time was limited. I snapped to and headed off to my right, disarmed to find that her music, thanks to the soundman Greg Kuhn, was even bigger miked into the adjacent area. There I found a comically static and visually complex scene with Marit Brook-Kothlow and Felipe Barrueto-Cabello, impassive and chair-bound, as the anguished-couple-who-will-never-meet-soul-to-soul.

Soon I understood that it was precisely this kind of dislocation of sound and image that gave an edgy charge to the installation. Several times I noted in myself a Pavlovian hunger to scramble after what was hidden from view yet heard, suggested in fragments in a mirror, or filmed one place and projected elsewhere. Human yearning was built into the very physicality of the installation and endowed Humansville with juicy paradoxes. The conceptual framework also gave the production heft, making vignettes feel more substantial.

Since his artistic beginnings in the Bay Area, Goode’s work has been obsessed with the questions of what does it mean to be a gay man who hungers for intimacy? What is true desire? What is intimacy between men, between gay men and women? In Humansville, Goode asserts there is connection in the mere effort to connect.

Although solemn-faced Brook-Kothlow and Barrueto- Cabello were seated four feet from each other and never interacted, their shared plight did, to a degree, connect them. A projection of the moon hung above to their right, and words accumulated over each head: “patient” for Brook-Kothlow; “itchy” for Barrueto-Cabello; “gives everything” for her; “too upset to notice” for him. The anguished face of a woman in a headscarf crying an extended, silent cry flamed up. The sadness of the lovers’ dilemma, the frustration of human longing—it was all there. But Goode is not one to get too lugubrious. On an opposing screen, video images of a seductive woman appeared: “Touch me,” she insisted. People touched. “Thank you,” she replied. “Touch me here,” she continued. “Thank you,” she purred.

My next foray led me to a place where irony and American Gothic merged in prototypical Goode fashion. Around the corner, Jessica Swanson was holding court in a suburban 50s bedroom (lattice and rose wallpaper), personifying a shrill Bobby-soxer with a routine of iconic pin-up gestures, gasps and coos that she engaged when not on the phone to her boyfriend. A little window in the set allowed passersby to peer into the scene. Simultaneously, we could overhear a harpy (Patrica West) screeching in another alcove to a maitre’d about botched reservations, foreshadowings, perhaps, of the teenager as middle-aged woman.

Further on, two men (Melecio Estrella and Alexander Zendzian) dressed in only boxers were installed in adjacent cells with what seemed to be Piramus and Thisbe-style holes through which to talk. Although trapped and separate, one asked the other how he’d managed to escape. They hurled themselves against the floor and wall, performed neck stands and heaved and fell. Slender rectangular windows in the rear wall let us see audience members passing along a hallway dividing the installations. Suddenly we all became voyeurs, peering in on the action, as well as the viewed.

As part two got underway, the audience seated, Jeanneraud resumed her composition, echoing the beginning. We were presented with video images of the lovers’ faces merging in an oddly literal fashion, a presage of the over-earnest hunger for connection that stuck to part two like flypaper.

That hunger was especially apparent in Goode’s voiceover. He brought us back to the theme of unbounded female giving versus male withholding, but with a smarmy tone that suggested there’s more to the story than even he knows, a recurring problem in his texts: “She makes me believe that sharing is possible,” he gushed. The tale about a sexy young guy (Estrella) playing peek-a-boo by the pool with aging peepers was similarly undigested, combining cleverness with emotional piety.

But much of the ensemble dancing was forthright, and the company, with the addition of Andrew Ward, moved with a new sinewy power. The highlight was Brook-Kothlow plastering her flesh inch by inch against elegant Barrueto- Cabello’s. In fact, it was one of the loveliest and more naked studies of human yearning I’ve seen in years. Set design was brilliantly realized by Erik Flatmo, with video design by Austin Forbord, lights by Jack Carpenter and costumes by Wendy Sparks.

BTW: Humansville is a real city in Missouri, population 946.

This article appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of In Dance.

Ann Murphy, a long-time Bay Area dance critic, is Assistant Professor and Chair of the Dance Department at Mills College in Oakland.