Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Fantastical Skin

There’s a moment in the documentary China: Through the Looking Glass (I don’t remember if I talked about it here or in one of my regular Facebook posts which lately have taken the form of flash essays – you know, like flash fiction only essay) when employees in the Costume Institute at the Met open a giant crate and take out a super heavy, bejeweled cape with a train, one of those designer affairs that took months to stitch and costs more than I’ll make in a lifetime. They approach the piece wearing white gloves and disposable lab coats whose opacity makes the employees look rather esoteric, like extras in a sci-fi film where no expense was spared in the costume department, and everyone moves silently, with creepy splendor, behind huge panes of glass, attending to some experiment that might wipe out the human race.

There was something strange and very beautiful about people in white coats (the asylum of fashion?) touching the most lavish fabrics and designs, and it made me think of the impossible task of the costume designer in the theatre. The director has only words to communicate shape, color, symbol (all costumes should be extensions of the characters), when in reality there are so many more things that need to be talked about: the three hundred shades of the same pigment, the rustling of the fabric, the way it trails, holds its composure, moves with the light…I love costumes. Not costumes that wear the characters, but costumes that become a second skin, a better skin, and allow the body underneath to discover movements that were not possible before.

As usual, I have very little money (I mean, I have more money than I had for previous productions, but in the grand scheme of things, I have very little money…) and yet the girls need to look spectacular. Girls. Plural. Yes, they’ve multiplied. But no one’s really shocked, are they? All my plays grow in the telling – I wouldn’t know how to write otherwise – and a play about me finding a purpose in exile (purpose = theatre) has to pay homage to the second skin, the fantastical skin, the outer personality layer: the costume. And how can I do that and not show respect for the item of clothing the actor puts on, ideally in a movement that resembles a ritual?

And so fictional me (the girl) acquired a dresser on stage, an esoteric figure in white, whose face is covered by a gauzy layer of fabric, whose hands are protected by white gloves, a silent figure who glides through the space carrying the girl’s clothes the way the believers carry the relics of saints. I imagine a series of beautiful tableaux vivants in which the dresser and the dressed pause to admire each other’s work. The pause is very important. At the end of each choreographed moment, they have to hold the image, so that the spectators can fill their eyes with its beauty and significance.

I see the girl as a reluctant mermaid (“here, by the rocks, in the foreground...”) behind the scrim, on her platform –  while the dresser reaches for her in front of the scrim, a figure frozen in longing. One hidden, in silhouette, one revealed by the light, exposed.

I see the girl dancing with her dresser – a waltz distorted by the excruciating lingering of Butoh, each step deconstructed, each turn a longing for stillness. I think of Butoh as the regret of movement. I think of it as a complement to silence. I think of it as hiding in the light.

The presence of the second girl allows me to do what I do best: to step back and look, to manipulate silhouettes so that their interaction tells a story without the need for language; to delight in the possibilities of light, the fading of a single sound, the substantial complexity of a blackout. This way I can remain on stage as I truly am: a voice, a body of work, a narrative frame. I can’t lie: I also enjoy immensely that my fictional self now has a fictional self. I love stagings into the abyss, I like the open-endedness of it all.

In profile, the dresser has to look a little menacing. Something about her headpiece has to communicate the possibility of terror because there is a very thin line separating the horrific from the sublime. This is why we can move so abruptly from love to hate (and back?), this is why truly fantastical monsters are always beautiful. For the dresser I’m thinking of a headpiece similar in shape to that of Pyramid Head in Silent Hill, but white and semi-transparent. Or antlers. I mean, if we are to dream big, there’s always Alexander McQueen.

I remember reading, as a child, fairy tales about self-sacrificing mermaids or serpent maidens ready to shed their skin for true love. I remember thinking no, don’t do it. Don’t hide your skin where they can find and destroy it. He who is meant to love you, will love you with the serpent skin, with the mermaid tail, with the fantastical layer that protects you from the real...But the girls never listened and the fairy tales never saved them, and so with burnt skin and broken hearts they always returned to the sea, to the forest.

Well, not this time. This time we keep the real contained, behind bars. This time the fantastical skin stays on, in all its glorious terror.

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