JoAnne Akalaitis Essay - Critical Essays


JoAnne Akalaitis’s place in the history of theater is, according to her own assessment, not connected with the American theater tradition of such artists as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Edward Albee, who, despite their apparent differences, all have family and relationships at the core of their work. Solidly nested in avant-garde theater, Akalaitis’s work with Mabou Mines is more international and multimedia in flavor. Surrealist and expressionist elements appear in nontraditional use of objects and lighting. Like Bertolt Brecht, Mabou Mines creates a reflexive world in which the actors call attention to the existence of the stage and their own acting, through nonconcealment of set changes, onstage narration, shifting of character portrayal among various actors, and partial set designs that reveal the bare bones of the stage.

At once grounded in history and deliberately detached from context, Akalaitis’s work is highly conceptual, tempting the audience to decipher or create the play’s patterns while deconstructing these patterns, even as they grow. Her views on acting include a firm determination not to manipulate actors or audiences but rather to allow whatever works for the moment to happen. The methods of Akalaitis and Mabou Mines stem from their notions of group consciousness, and they aim to create theater from the dialectic between past and present, traditional theater and nontheatrical media, and group and individual.

Dressed Like an Egg

Akalaitis’s first widely successful production, Dressed Like an Egg, first presented by the New York Shakespeare Festival in May of 1977, is a collage piece with ten segments: “Prologue,” “The Dance,” “The Cage,” “The Bath,” “The Seaside,” “The Cage (Part II),” “The Pantomime,” “Opium,” “The Novel,” and “Age.” Based on the writings of Colette, each of the segments deals in some manner with the issue of gender. The prologue begins with a brief recitation on carrying a child high in the womb. The play moves quickly to “The Dance,” which explores relationships between men and women, juxtaposing such romantic elements as a Chopin polonaise to the obvious movements of a stagehand who offhandedly whistles the tune as he works. Flowers and lines about the ecstasy of love are delivered by males and females wearing turn-of-the-century undergarments and gazing into hand mirrors as they speak, thus undercutting the emotion and sentimentality of their words. “The Cage” and “The Bath” feature trapeze work and a bathing scene, followed by “The Seaside,” in which a man claims that he writes out titles the library should have, a service he claims preserves the honor of the catalogue. These comic scenes focus audience attention on the concept of the ideal in sexuality, romance, and intellect.

The structure of the play is not at first apparent, but on closer inspection, the second half seems more serious, less playful, despite occasional absurdities that may draw audience laughter. “The Cage (Part II)” deals with the ending of romance, and the last line, “I’m cold,” hints at death, a line reiterated as the last phrase of the final scene. In absurd recapitulation of the theme of physical passion, a stagehand commands a woman to “let loose a breast!” in “The Pantomime.” “Opium” and “The Novel” quote extensively from Colette on the topics of opium dens and the power play of romantic involvements. These two segments both depict decadent phases of development, one within an individual or culture and one within a relationship. The historical connections and recurrence of themes achieve full circle in “Age,” which combines images of American planes and the cycle of Venus, a planet that grows into its period of greatest brilliance every eight years. The section on Venus indirectly comments on the waxing and waning of romantic impulses, at both an individual and a cultural level.

As in most of Akalaitis’s works, visual and aural richness play an integral role in the production. Dressed Like an Egg contrasts the soft romantic elements of seashell footlights, pastel pinks, blues, and grays, with the crudity of modern fabrics, silver lamé, a Celastic dress, a mylar rug, and the startling image of hairy male arms and hands dancing in women’s shoes. Stereotypically feminine symbols, such as carnations and irises, act as counterpoint to a woman snoring loudly. Dressed Like an Egg explores sexual ambiguity in other visually shocking scenes: For example, a woman dressed as a mummy passionately kisses another woman who is dressed as a man in an allusion to Colette’s intimate friendships with other women.

Southern Exposure

Akalaitis works well with historical information, weaving facts into the fabric of a purely modern vision, including abstract philosophy and absurdist elements of theater performance. Southern Exposure, performed at The New Theatre Festival, Baltimore, in 1979, is an exploration of exterior and interior poles. The play offers tribute to early explorers of the Antarctic at the same time that it explores interior or mental uncharted territory, areas of the mind untouched by civilization, perhaps seeking the blank spot of pure being, nonbeing, or Nirvana. As in Dressed Like an Egg, past and present commingle in delightful ways, with the idea of blankness as the element that draws people to superimpose definitions and “culture” on empty space. In the prologue, a woman dressed in Edwardian style builds a penguin nest as she explains the penguin family system, in which the father warms the eggs. Blackout follows this touching scene, after which a film of a modern couple visiting aquarium penguins appears, accompanied by a female voiceover describing the timeless penguin burial ground, where dead penguins float, layer on layer, preserved in the ice of Antarctica.

In the “Shackleton Story,” a scene in Southern Exposure, a couple in bed recount the disastrous mission of Ernest Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic Expedition from 1914 to 1917. The melancholy quality of this historical document diminishes as the woman drops black cubes into the man’s lap. In “Mirage,” a man draws the word “horizon” on a blank paper, then rips and crinkles it, underscoring the failure of art to capture the immediate quality of the environment, just as the explorer fails to encompass the vastness of physical space. “Bed” and...

(The entire section is 2658 words.)