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Troubled bodies tangle with truth

Keith Gallasch: Force Majeure, Off the Record

Gerard O’Dwyer, Marnie Palomares, Off the Record, Force Majeure Gerard O’Dwyer, Marnie Palomares, Off the Record, Force Majeure
photo Zan Wimberley

The first indication that we are about to enter an unusual, indeed discombobulated world, one “off the record,” is seen on a row of video screens built into a black monolith. The arms of five digital clocks rotate at very different speeds, some ticking to the minute, others blithely sweeping their way through 24-hour cycles. In the background, a deceptive sense of order is conveyed by quiet classical piano. Each clock bears the name of one of the deeply frustrated characters in Force Majeure’s Off the Record, the first production from the company’s new artistic director, Danielle Micich, co-directed by Dance Integrated Australia’s Philip Channells.

These people—the performers use their own names: Alex, Jana, Gerard, Marnie, Neil—desire identity, social intimacy and sex. For those with disabilities there are additional hindrances—how to communicate, how to resist assumptions—but, for all of them, telling the truth—about themselves and each other—is deeply challenging. Off the Record moves quite laterally, character by character and in various couplings, towards revelation—uncomfortable truths and inescapable relativities.

Atop the monolith and above the action is Auslan interpreter Neil, who eventually finds himself with the others on the floor, embroiled physically and emotionally in complex interactions, making him a sensitive avatar for the audience. Other characters assume his role at times as they engage with Alex, who is deaf, manipulating and embracing him.

Brief movement duets are among the the work’s key motifs, first seen as Gerard attempts to gently embrace Marnie. She slithers up and down, resisting but still touching body to body until she enters into the play with passion, before exiting abruptly, something she will do in a more elaborate and disturbing encounter later with the desperately lonely Alex. Her audio diary entries and a subsequent scene reveal her desire for sex, despite painful experiences, communication misunderstandings and the enduring damage done by rejection in a dance competition—her impairment is psychological.

Gerard, who has Down Syndrome, is also lonely, meeting his needs by identifying with an actress in The Bold and the Beautiful and holding a fixed view of himself—his mantra: “I don’t lie, don't do drugs, I’m not judgemental”—until he encounters Off the Record’s most complex character, Jana.

Neil Phipps, Marnie Palomares, Off the Record, Force Majeure Neil Phipps, Marnie Palomares, Off the Record, Force Majeure
photo Zan Wimberley

Initially slumped upstage, Jana is barely intelligible, muttering as if perhaps brain-damaged, but it’s a voice she can turn on and off. Similarly, her movement oscillates between seemingly difficult to control—wide, staggered stances, odd-angled arms, if with a determined elegance—and, partnering with Marnie, a fluent, unconstrained duet. Later, in a somewhat confusing episode of further shape-shifting and contradicting earlier instances of awkwardness, she stands behind the clocks, head invisible, stripped down to a bikini, striking convincing body-builder poses.

Likewise, she plays with the truth. Does she have Tourette’s Syndrome? She declares, “I never tic on stage,” dismisses the notion that Touretters all swear and in the end refuses us certainty about what we’ve witnessed in general. Jana’s a classic trickster figure, but not entirely in control. In their duet, Marnie, typically, exits, leaving Jana to solo, but her dancing and music glitch and break down. In a later pairing, Marnie attempts to control Jana’s wayward limbs.

Jana, whose ‘sin’ is having introduced another child to sex play with Ken and Barbie dolls, adroitly lies to adults about it and repeats the ‘act’ with a submissive Alex as Ken (another fine pairing). She lectures us: “Not everyone needs to know the truth.”

It’s Jana who throws Gerard, already feeling he’s an imposter, into confusion. He becomes disruptive, singing a wild Irish folk song at the top of the long ramp on the other side of the stage because no-one is listening to him. After lamenting feeling “old, cold” he calls a hiding Jana to “come out and be Jana again.” But which Jana will it be? This time it’s Jana with the awry voice. After infuriating Alex by signing meaninglessly, she apologises to him via Neil. Alex signs, “Apologise to me! He’s just an interpreter!” underlining the complexity of communication when a third party has to be involved. It’s a funny-sad moment, prefacing darker scenes to come.

Alex Jones, Marnie Palomares, Off the Record, Force Majeure Alex Jones, Marnie Palomares, Off the Record, Force Majeure
photo Zan Wimberley

By the end, Jana admits, “Sometimes people do need to know the truth.” Alex knows that he should have admitted his fault in crashing his girlfriend’s car, the crisis which, recalled at the beginning of the performance, has unleashed all his anxieties. It’s after his gentle duet with Marnie—feeling each others’ weight, one carrying the other in a scene of hopeful intimacy until she walks away—that Alex reveals the full extent of his pain, surprising us with speech: “I could love…[but] I avoid and fear you.” He’s profoundly alone in his deafness, which is “a dull noise,” the truth of his condition profoundly felt before the work’s riotous coda in which the characters ‘fuck’ each other, themselves, walls and floor in a celebration of liberating, primal desire beyond the complexities, lies and painful revelations we all experience but which can be overwhelming for those disadvantaged by physical, intellectual and emotional limitations. In Off the Record we see minds and bodies at work, honestly, confidently and proudly defying those limits.

Micich and Channells have been careful to keep their choreographing of movement and dance within a tight frame so that the difference in skill levels between the actors and the dancers is never too pronounced. Where an actor and dancer come together the pairing is subtly and convincingly played out and not as simple as it might at first look. Not everything felt right: Jana’s body-builder posturing; Marnie’s protracted dance competition angst; the awkward alternation of fragments of two stories in one scene; and the extreme width of the performance space sometimes disappearing words and movement. The density of the material in the first third or so of the work was daunting as I put names to bodies, adjusted to different forms of delivery and absorbed a lot of information. I wondered about the limited use of the screens, especially when text was projected onto walls, and why the clocks that prefaced the show didn't make a return appearance.

Direction was assured, design starkly striking, lighting effectively austere and sound in tune with the variety of dramatic needs and moods. The script, though word-heavy, returns consistently and playfully, sometimes head-spinningly, to matters of truth. Alex Jones revealed great range: amiability, anger and despair. Gerard O’Dwyer (seen recently at PACT in Ruckus’ Speed of Life), a bold presence with fine diction and a great sense of humour, extrovertly delineated his feelings of isolation with finesse. Marnie Palomares’ oscillation between easeful engagement with the other characters and her ‘turning off’ was chilling. Neil Phipps’ persona was gentle, responsive and became more complex as he found himself at once trapped in and freed from his service role. Jana Castillo created a bewildering character, sometimes closed, sometimes a catalyst, embodying the work’s relentless dialectic of truth/lies, real/not real, able and not so, but never limited. She and Palomares gave the work a lyrical dimension with expressive dancing in their solos. Although the work doesn’t reveal the extent of new artistic director Danielle Micich’s choreographic artistry, the well-crafted, inventive couplings she’s created with Channells provide a very busy work with an engaging and thematically rich through-line that keeps movement centrestage.

Off the Record is a promising start for a new era for Force Majeure, one in line with the company’s distinctive dance theatre, issues-based model, with a new edge and defiant in the face of inexplicable defunding by the Australia Council.

Jana Castillo, Marnie Palomares, Alex Jones, Off the Record, Force Majeure Jana Castillo, Marnie Palomares, Alex Jones, Off the Record, Force Majeure
photo Zan Wimberley

Carriageworks, Force Majeure with Dance Integrated Australia, Off the Record, directors Danielle Micich, Philip Channells, performers Jana Castillo, Alex Jones, Gerard O’Dwyer, Marnie Palomares, Neil Phipps, set, lighting Benjamin Cisterne, sound design Kingsley Reeve, text dramaturg Zoe Coombes Marr; commissioned by Carriageworks for New Normal National Arts and Disability Strategy; Carriageworks, Sydney, 17-20 Aug

RealTime issue #134 Aug-Sept 2016 pg.

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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