EMU student Casidhe McNulty reacts to Rodrigo Toscano’s recent BathHouse reading:
The November 9th reading of Rodrigo Toscano’s Collapsible Poetics at The Dreamland Theater was made successful by the performers, which included Toscano and five guest performers. They all remained well composed for the vast majority of the performance, in spite of the standing-room-only audience, limited rehearsal time and people that could be heard talking outside the theater during the performance.
Watching Spine, the second performance, was like watching beings from another world. The performers remained completely in character, seemingly oblivious to anything other than each other and the objects on the stage. The intonation of lines and body movement added to the otherworldly feel of the performance as well. The portrayal of B was also very well done, to the point of being zombie-like. The green lights on the stage the consistently blank look on his face added to the realism of him as a zombie, as well as his desire to bite Toscano’s arm. The other performers seemed that much more human in comparison.
While the performers remained very in character, I still felt somewhat lost. I recently read Spine, and found myself trying to decipher what was going on from memory because it wasn’t entirely obvious just from watching the performance. This is especially true in regard to the beginning, and Toscano’s character (A in the script) holding up the ‘pole’, which in this performance was portrayed by an aluminum ladder covered in a translucent purple plastic sheet.
To their credit, the performers were very convincing in their interactions with the props they had to work with in Spine, although the props, specifically the ladder, were not ideal. The ladder that stood in for the pole in Spine was the main thing that pulled me out of the performance. It was a very sturdy A-frame ladder, and it was very obvious that there was no danger of the ladder falling on either of the two performers who were trying to hold it up. Also, the fact that they were pushing on something that was leaning away from them instead of leaning over or toward them made it hard to believe there was any danger or necessity in holding it up.
Although it is not directly related to the performance itself, the second thing that interfered with how well the performance worked for me was the lack of sufficient seating for the audience members.
I attended the reading with a classmate, and when we got there, it was standing room only. Both sides of the seating area had at least one row of people sitting against the walls for the entire length of the seating area.
I am not sure of the exact number of people in the audience, although there were at least enough people standing behind the seating area that the door remained open for the entire performance. One woman was standing less than a foot in front of me for most of the performance because there was nowhere else for either of us to go.
The Dreamland Theater is supposed to be a performance space, which in previous performances has resulted in turning the lights in the seating area off. For the Toscano performance, however, it was impossible to turn all of the lights off for safety reasons because the room was so densely packed with people. The lights remaining on the entire time added to the difficulty in becoming absorbed in the performance because of other audience members who were moving around to go to the bathroom, leaving early or talking to others.
The overcrowding wasn’t a mere hindrance to how much I enjoyed the performance, however, it was a source of anxiety for both my classmate and myself. While I was able to move past the anxiety associated with standing far too close to people I had never met before and pay attention to the performance, I still felt the need to move closer to my classmate. She, on the other hand, described how she felt during the performance as, ‘Mild claustrophobia meets high social anxiety. Should have dissolved that Xanax under my tongue.’
In spite of this, seeing Truax Inimical, Spine and Balm To Bilk performed on stage by Toscano did increase my respect for and interest in his work. It was also very enlightening, because there was inflection and enjoyment behind the words in the performance that is lacking when silently reading the work. In Balm to Bilk, this enjoyment is shown not only in the performer’s tone and inflection, but also in the reflexive laughter from the performers after some lines were said.
Unlike Spine, the majority of the emphasis in Truax Inimical and Balm To Bilk was on the intonation and rhythm of the words, as the performers in both pieces were sitting down at a table in both pieces. This disparity between the pieces clarified Toscano’s emphasis on and understanding of physical space in his pieces, especially because both of these can be taken as stream of consciousness in the head of one or several characters.
My understanding of the physical space in relation to the performers changed after seeing the performance. There is no description of the set or costume designs in the written work for Truax Inimical or Balm to Bilk, and what there is of a set description for Spine only mentions the pole and the table the performers lay on, sit at and crawl under. With this lack of description, the reader should technically have no expectations, yet I found myself desiring different set pieces (a different “pole”, specifically) and wardrobe for the performers to make it feel more uniform and planned out.
Part of why I wish there was more planning centered around set design and wardrobe is because Truax Inimical and Balm To Bilk both had multiple levels of meaning that could be applied to the language used in the piece. If the set design or wardrobe was more thought out, the meanings behind the words could have been addressed in more detail without a good deal of effort; the performers dressing in similar or very different attire, for example, could have drawn out these meanings just by implying a difference between the performers.
Accordingly, this meaning changes in relation to the intonation and the performers’ actions. In Balm To Bilk especially, the section near the end about “poetry for the movement” gives the impression that the piece is a commentary on the splintering of theory or practice in a writing movement. The next lines, “poetry for the movement? This shit?” make the piece a work of metafiction, though there are even layers within that: not only is Balm To Bilk referencing itself but also the many levels of meaning within the piece, which could reference movements outside of writing, where poetry is only part of the whole, such as the feminist movement, or the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights movement.