I want to say that words fail to describe Miguel Gutierrez’s latest work at DTW, Last Meadow, because it is humbling to think about its sheer scope, even more so to reduce it to a bunch of words after watching one performance. And yet, even though it is foremost experiential, there is a generous amount of structure to deliberate as well. It meanders, barrels ahead, stops for breaks, flows lyrically, evolves, and devolves over the duration of its packed 90 minutes.
Gutierrez somehow creates work that you feel in your gut and your heart, and at the same time your brain works feverishly to process the layers of text, subtext, examination of the performance form itself, and endless experimentation with the powerful, often overlooked areas of sound and lighting. The loose pretexts for this show involve James Dean’s films, the father figure in America, as America, and confusion as “a potentially transformative, sensory-enlivened state,” per the program. Gutierrez has never lacked for ambition, and at first glance, these topics would seem far too large and disconnected to allow for any cohesion whatsoever.
And yet Gutierrez links the opening scene ramblings of a depressed Cal, Dean’s character inEast of Eden (the amazing Michelle Boulé in a tour de force performance), with his own straight-laced father character by means of his own long, rambling monologue whispered into a mic. At first, I thought it was a recording because Gutierrez was hidden in the dark, and the enunciation was so clear that we could understand every whispered word, but he was doing it live. The primal, and yet singular act of speech and the power of language and its cognition is one of Gutierrez’s secret weapons, with which he ferrets out nightmares and subconscious suspicions, or simply pins our ears back with massive volume. In a later scene, Boulé and Tarek Halaby (who plays a woman) read lines from a script as Gutierrez somehow parrots them with the mic jammed in his mouth, to terrifying effect. We can understand none of the performers in this scene where content loses out to mutated, mediated form. Maybe it’s better that way.
Boulé begins to bark out minute stage directions that all three follow obediently. Lying on their faces, they begin to sing a lovely song in harmony, but it eventually segues seamlessly into a recording. Or was it live? Moments like this crop up with regularity in the work, where you have to press a mental rewind button, and question your skills of perception. “Cut!” is called, and the trio relaxes into their natural states, or so it seems. They banter, clean up the strewn clothes, stretch. Halaby sings My Country ‘Tis of Thee in a lovely voice. They revert into their film characters, repeating an emotional scene when Cal returns home. Jerky poses accompany each line; this devolves into Boulé now shouting choreographic phrases to hilarious effect, with opera blaring as well. (Those who’ve done modern dance guffawed at the moves’ nicknames, which ranged from descriptive to things like the “Frank Gehry,” which involved waving fingers wildly through ones’ legs, bent over backward.) Clothes come off down to underwear; club music begins, and they dance and romp for sheer pleasure, seemingly in a trance. Gutierrez makes a loop through the audience, pausing a few times to give some lucky viewers lap dances (ahem), and then does a series of full-out grand jetés around the stage. They veritably burst with joy.
But the costumes go back on, and the piece retraces some of the scenes we’ve already seen. A shadow cast enters, replaying some of the earlier action as the first cast takes its bows, and it isn’t until I’m nearly out of the theater that I realize it’s the same dialogue that we heard looping endlessly, pre-curtain. Gutierrez can’t manipulate time, but he sure can mess with our perceptions of it.