My Hot Lobotomy; Review: October 23, 2008

By Ann Murphy

December 1, 2008, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

In My Hot Lobotomy by David Szlasa and Sara Shelton Mann the audience knows within moments that dancer/choreographer Erin Mei-Ling Stuart is one adroit actress. She sits alone for long minutes in the small black box theater wearing a quizzical, nearly blank face, playing a lobotomized guy named Joey, her eyes the single alert organ in her frozen form—and we can’t stop looking. Later, when a beatific expression takes hold of her features and her eyes disappear into her head as she plays part of a Bach cello concerto, we also discover that she is an equally accomplished violist.

We see Stuart decked out in a suit sitting in a bright orange chair. It is a color that gives an Impressionist touch to the scene, accentuated by a plump and contented looking blue sky and white cloud projection behind. The world we are entering, though, is a post-post-post Impressionist dreamscape, the kind of place where Cezanne, Matisse and even Van Gogh exist as happy Brave New World distractions against disaster, where peaches, apples and starry nights are fake and there is no depth of field or horizon line to look toward. In fact, this is an absurd and dystopic reality, a weird claustrophobic place in which 19th century innocence is supplanted by psychosurgical disconnection.

The cornerstone of that zombiehood is Stuart’s gentle, blank mask. In the first minutes, we scour her face for shifts and changes as we would the transfixed face of a clown. Finding none we begin to take in a barrage of small details. I noticed how, for instance, her khaki jacket and nicely pressed khaki pants were distinctly different shades of the same dun color. And how the circle of blue beefy recycling arrows surrounding a heart on her tee shirt was a variant of the blue of her turquoise shoes. During the long time in which we got to pay attention to her crookedly arranged mouth, I wondered if our gaze had heat and, if so, whether or not she could feel it on her face. I also noted activity in seemingly stationary hands. The fingers were slowly crawling along the khaki pants. Not quite like spiders. Like zombie hands awakening. Like the hands of someone dying making a monumental effort to move in their waning hours. Shelton Mann’s butoh-inspired action was laced with such sweet, dark humor.

Because this was theater, and because it was absurdist theater, somewhere between Beckettian koans and Ruth Zaporah’s Action Theater, the proverbial knock at the door came as it had to come, and it was both a shock and wholly expected. Stuart’s eyes leapt in the direction of the door behind the audience and our skin leapt with her when the hard rap arrived. It was a well-timed joke that got the charming, somewhat rambling hour-long absurd-apocalyptic dance-theater piece moving in earnest. Rather than the FBI, the CIA or the KGB, the man knocking is the pizza man, Spencer Evans, the night’s catalyst, decked out in a neo-Aussie-cowboy look, a guy who also sings and strums his slightly out-of-tune guitar to tell us about Joey. Joey, it seems, plunged an ice pick into the orbit of his eyes and scrambled his brains.

The messenger Evans feeds Joey, offers instructional tapes, and leaves behind a mountain of garbage. His role is much less ominous than a government agent and far more insidious. Evans drops an audio tape into the boom box to keep Joey company as he eats. “I’m really glad you’re here,” a warm female voice croons. “You’ve met the delivery guy. He’ll bring you everything you need. No need to tip him…. It’s going to be great…it’s going to be really great. It’s going to be great….” Like a vacationer in Hawaii fanned by tropical breezes, Joey drifts off into contentment and soon sleeps the sleep of the lamb.

Against this somnolent waking world, Szlasa creates Joey’s dream zone where truth appears in the form of images and messages. These are played out as projections overlaying the sheep-like clouds and happy blue sky. But this is where the not-quite sharp symbols of pizza, pizza boxes and oozing mind-control tapes that are nevertheless wacky and fairly apt become the all-too literal images of National Geographic or Time magazine, devoid of the kind of transpersonal terror that could spur even the lobotomized to action. Apocalyptic dreams tend to be far more archetypal than baby polar bears struggling in water and vast acres of automobiles, smog-clogged skylines and Al Gore from An Inconvenient Truth. A friend recently described her “hot lobotomy” nightmare: “There’s a room full of guys, all lolling on chairs and sofas like teenagers. The house is on fire. The fire is approaching. I am screaming at them to leave, to hurry, to get out immediately, the house is on fire. They look at me casually, unperturbed. None of them moves. I’ve got my leg out the window. I can see the flames approaching.” She has since bought herself a fire extinguisher and talks about selling the house.

But back to Joey. Joey wakes, repeats the process, following Jane Fonda’s workout one moment, and a musical instructional the next, each unit sweet and wry although ultimately tame and slightly disappointing, since with a bit more probing Szlasa and Shelton Mann might have disturbed our own somnolence more. Because how does the Fonda fitness craze compare to the psychotic quackery of a Star Wars missile shield, the dissemination of humvees as family transport or the embrace of conspicuous consumption as a form of religious obligation and patriotic duty? And how does the beauty of Bach and the expertise of musicianship figure in to the modern plague of papered-over consciousness? Finally, Stuart shoves off the pizza and begins to build something with the pizza boxes, and although the resistance is welcomed, the reason for it is unclear.

Since many of us are asking these days where resistance should and can go, we also wonder how we “become the change we need” without turning into an infomercial for the apocalypse or a self-parody that points to our inevitable post-post-everything absurdity. Many have begun to believe that each personal act is crucial, that awareness and responsibility are inseparable, and that reforming ones own habits is the beginning of profound and widespread socio-economic, political and spiritual change. Others are figuring out how to migrate—to Canada, or, preferably Paris, more preferably the Marais or the 5th arrondissement.

Joey, too, is planning on going somewhere. He scores boxes with scissors, folds, builds, folds and builds some more. First he constructs walls that fall (oops, can’t hide) and then he builds a space ship. A wonderful kids’ spaceship, with each box carefully puzzled together with its neighbor, the last box his hat doubling as the ship’s nose. Joey holds the true religious symbol of our time, the steering wheel, in his hands, gripping tight. He is happy. Delusion has no limits, after all, and can project itself into outer space and new, unlit frontiers. The instructional purrs: “…It’s going to be great…it’s going to be really great. It’s going to be great….”

This article appeared in the December 2008 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.