Let us not leave Ashley Kelly-Tata’s theater company, Enthuse Theatre, out of the conversation; amongst all this talk of Radiohole, The Amoralists, NTUSA, and the plethora of other companies and ensembles working in the genre Avant-Garde (usually meaning you won’t like it, according to the Times) in the grand tradition of the Wooster Group, Mabou Mines, and The Living Theater, etc, Enthuse Theatre seems to be blatantly ignoring the memo. Where is the dramaturgically-isolated technology? Where are the ironic facial expressions and bad acting disguised as performance experiment? Where are the elements of circus, burlesque, and 1980’s gay culture? The taste of Beavis and Butthead?
I saw Enthuse’s Forget This City last night in Prospect Park, at a rickety yellow pavilion, sunlight scattered by the maple canopy, ancient wood chips, clouds of gnats, and bits of broken glass and condom wrappers. Co-Produced with Insight Dance, the piece was only 40 minutes in length, and tight, clean, spherical, rather like an orange, or a short story by Miranda July. This tightness was a surprise in a piece based on Euripides’ The Bacchae, and in sweet contrast with the frenzy, emotional escapism, and hedonism that both Euripides and Kelly-Tata explore. With this text, by Tamara Weiss, these (by very definition) uncanny, powerful, ritual elements and performance experiences were placed in a context of juvenile delinquency, childish pleasure-seeking, and inability to care for the self. The Fierce Maenads are played in this piece as in mythology, as sex-and-wine-crazed young women who rip animals and human beings to shreds in their ecstasy and raving madness, yet their similarity in costume and mannerisms to the young people that we see lolling in every public park, in every open garage, skate-boarding on the steps in Union Square, linked Pentheus’ city to our city, very literally. Thus, the production is encapsulated almost completely by the questions: Who is the Dionysus who leads us into this worshipful madness? Who or what, in this time, causes us to forget our own history and tear our loved-ones to shreds?
At this time, companies like Ashley’s can be called neither “avant-garde” (as they do not follow the rules of this genre at this time) nor traditional. Enthuse is experimental in a way that is unique at the moment; Ashley has none of the love for Peter Brook’s grand visual stylings, her professor Ann Bogart’s brand of work, nor Richard Foreman’s balls-out nonsense. Instead, Ashley follows more in the vein of early Shechner, interested in the audience as they experience collective frenzy, catharsis, release, and that which can be gained from any dream, the very steam valve that Greek thespians sought.
Primarily working with Greek texts (The Clouds last summer for example), and collaborating with artists like Composer Angelique Mouyis (whose compositions were half traditional Greek melody, half contemporary musical theater) and choreographer Leeanne M. G.-Bowley (whose work is feminine, symmetrical, and indicative), Ashley is one of the few theater directors I know who isn’t afraid to ask real political, emotional, and dramatic questions about human experience and the world in which we live.