Theater in Quarantine, a company that has been broadcasting experimental work from its founder’s closet since March, is transforming the constraints of its strange conditions into a wonderful style.
One of those limitations, of course, is space requirements: the 4-foot-by-8-foot-by-2-foot closet requires ship-shape compositions, large gestures, and graphics that translate wonderfully into large and small screens.
Another is time: there is only so much aerobic multitasking that Joshua William Gelb, whose closet it is, can stand alone in his East Village apartment. The rest of the production team works remotely.
This training has never been more obvious than in Heather Christian’s “I Send You The Holy Face,” which premiered Monday night on Quarantine’s YouTube channel in the theater. Although it took less than 40 minutes, it made Yellow gasp in the post-show discussion.
I also wanted more, which is usually not my answer to such obscure, if resounding, material. Note for those who frequent the avant-garde: conciseness is your friend.
But for those who study history and hagiography, precision can be problematic, which suggests a reliance on Wikipedia. “Sacred Face”, an “expressionist musical portrait” of Mother Teresa, addresses this problem by making every minute as dense as possible: verbally, visually, musically and theatrically. It’s a cake so rich that the self-denying Albanian-born nun whose work with the dying poor of India resulted in a Nobel Prize and subsequent canonization while she was alive would certainly never touch it.
This paradox is useful here. How can we understand a woman who has made her vow of poverty so extreme that it seemed like opulence – or even for some psychopathology?
In previous work, including the Animal Wisdom oratorio, Christian has demonstrated the comfort of an insider with complex religious thoughts that make them a natural fit for the subject. Her restlessly intelligent lyrics, which rhyme at a glance and are tuned to beautiful melody drones, acknowledge the secrets of the character and also a number of possible reactions to them.
“I like my lazy bulgur, I enjoy days of hunger”, sings this Mother Teresa in a number called “Poverty Talk” and lets you decide whether her self-denial is a kind of heroism or masochism.
To say that Mother Teresa is singing this number is actually a simplification of the show’s complex methodology. Rather, the entire show – songs, speeches and musical accompaniment – was recorded by Christian, who remains only one voice throughout. On screen, all we see is yellow in homemade drag lip-syncing the libretto as he performs an intricate choreography by Katie Rose McLaughlin that is a little classically Indian and a little bit fashionable from Madonna.
As realized by the scenographer Kristen Robinson and the video designer Stivo Arnoczy, the live image is multiplied and kaleidoscoped into compositions that resemble Byzantine altar pieces with their formal frames and visual echoes. If you never imagined Mother Teresa as a man with chest hair in a low-cut sequin sari and painter’s tape turning to songs about poverty as a “sublime state,” now you don’t need to.
And yet, “Holy Face” isn’t just outrageous because of the shock or joy in it. Christian specifies drag in the Scriptures (and alludes to it in the title) with serious intent; In fact, the production hired Dito van Reigersberg, sometimes known as Martha Graham Cracker, to provide “drag dramaturgy”. In the complexity of a man playing a woman, the show means shedding light on the contradictions of Mother Teresa’s self-portrayal: only at home in the slums of Calcutta did she cause her greatest stir in Stockholm; Firm in her belief in the public, she remained plagued by doubts privately for 50 years.
I wish the story had gotten more into this contradiction – not just in the characterization and theatrical style, but also in the argumentation. Mother Teresa was a very public figure, after all.
But apart from a preshow recording of her Nobel acceptance speech, in which she emphasized her adamant opposition to abortion – while avoiding mentioning her equally adamant opposition to birth control – “Sacred Face” keeps political controversy at bay. The audience can imagine the paradox of a woman born in comfortable circumstances who alleviates the suffering of the poor but does little to prevent their poverty. Why should she when poverty was so high?
This may have sounded like a familiar problem to quarantined theaters. The constraints transformed as principles include not only time and space, but also money. “Sacred Face,” produced with Theater Mitu, had a budget of $ 2,500, a pittance; St. Teresa Halo is a repurposed LED ring light.
Even so, the level of sophistication attempted within this budget can stretch the capabilities and aesthetics of the company too far. In order to capture Christian’s texts at once, a clearer sound is required than here. (Switching on the subtitles helps.) And the principle of live performance streamed from a real location – as is so evident in low-tech theater in quarantine productions such as “The 7th Journey of Egon Tichy” in July – The digital video processing is impressive, however. Parts of “Sacred Face” seem to come from a computer, not a closet.
This is inevitable mounting pain for a theater that adapts a hastily sprung philosophy to an ongoing emergency. Adapt to success too. Each of the company’s 16 productions since March, seven of them dance presentations, have drawn larger audiences than the last, ranging from a handful of viewers to several thousand. Further performances of the individual works are now being offered: Livestreams of “Sacred Face” will continue until Friday. After that, a recorded version remains available indefinitely.
To the extent that quarantined theater’s growth enables it to produce beguiling niche works like “Sacred Face”, I can only applaud the progress. But as Mother Teresa found out, playing on larger stages has its own contradictions. How long does it take for the company to determine that its vow of poverty is too expensive to keep?
I am sending you the holy face
Livestream appearances on December 16 and 18 on YouTube; A recording remains available on YouTube. joshuawilliamgelb.com/theater-in-quarantine