Rock legend Bob Dylan is not much for stage banter, but of late he’s taken to punctuating his sets with corny jokes. “Why do golfers always carry an extra pair of pants?” he asked the crowd when I saw him a few years ago in Massachusetts. The answer: “In case they get a hole in one!”
So what’s the point? There is no point: the jokes are red herrings. The fact that Dylan plays the clown (as he always has) makes the profundity of his music all the more striking: you don’t expect the teller of that Borscht Belt joke to bust out with an epochal song like “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” In that sense, The League of Red Herrings—billed as “an evening of painless and evocative danceworks by Judith Howard and Mad King Thomas“—is aptly named. Howard and the women of Mad King Thomas can play clowns supremely well, but the humor counterbalances and brings into contrast performances of genuinely uncomfortable (that’s a compliment) force.
|the league of red herrings, presented through june 19 at bedlam theatre. for information and tickets ($13-$18), see bedlamtheatre.org.|
The first of the evening’s three acts is Howard’s, featuring four dances choreographed by the noted performer—three of which are performed by her alone. In middle age, Howard is a swift and lithe dancer, fluidly weaving disparate styles of movement into a seamless whole. Glacier plays like an overture, with Howard stretching, twisting, and rolling tumultuously about to a thorny score performed by Jelloslave. Capes enlists Mad King Thomas (Tara King, Theresa Madaus, and Monica Thomas) along with Naomi Joy, April Sellers, and Morgan Thorson in a campy but complex piece that fully explores the possibilities of the eponymous garment in modern dance.
Waltz II is a pas de deux between Howard and a giant stuffed bear, creating an effect both funny and creepy as Howard romances, ravages, and ultimately smothers her ursine lover. Spill, the final dance of the act, is by far the program’s slightest, as Howard removes locks of her hair (apparently they’ll be donated to help clean up the Gulf of Mexico oil spill) to a live cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Black Angel’s Death Song.” You get the concept, and there’s really not much more to the piece.
Howard and Sellers also have the final act, a brief but memorable duet called Sacrifish that’s performed in the Bedlam bar/lobby. The two lurch disorientingly about as Joy plays violin under a clear plastic tarp (because why not?), clad in striking costumes—gowns made of fishnet and plastic—that might be best described as post-consumer Gothic. It’s a wonderfully weird little interlude.
At the heart of the bill, though, is the new Mad King Thomas piece The World is Your Oyster Eat Up, Little Pearl. I saw and enjoyed the piece in rehearsal, but before an audience it was as if someone had lit a fuse: it burst into life. It wasn’t just that the piece was more polished, or that the women were energized by the attention; both were true, but the audience members’ diverse reactions also illuminated just how skillfully King, Madaus, and Thomas deploy their red herrings. After a brief appearance by King, Thomas has a long interlude in which she sticks her tongue out of her mouth—first very slowly, then in quick flicks. That sounds ridiculous, or boring, but Thomas’s deadpan comic timing is so good that the Friday night audience was in stitches. Then Mad King Thomas had us where they wanted us, and things got trickier.
In one absurd interlude after another, King, Madaus, and Thomas provoke laughter that turns uncomfortable very quickly—sometimes instantly—as your brain catches up with itself and thinks about the implications of what it’s laughing at. King delivers a monologue while wrapped in a thick black plastic bag, speaking in a parched croak. “The first time you saw me naked,” begins the monologue, “I was fucking my boyfriend. I don’t think that was the best way to begin a long-term relationship.” You start laughing, but then you start thinking, and King keeps speaking, adding unsettling details until she’s finished, and dances off in the bag. Madaus strips to a bra and briefs, then dons a white t-shirt and becomes a masculine character, groping her own crotch before declaring, “Don’t mind if I do,” as she pulls a banana out of her shorts and eats it. The three pose for a smiling family portrait, while the sport-jacketed King’s hand slips slowly down toward Thomas’s breast. You laugh, but then suddenly you don’t really feel like laughing…until, a few seconds later, you do again.
The performance, which Mad King Thomas call a “dance” although it rarely looks like a dance in a traditional sense of the word, is a brilliant and beautiful fugue of dark humor, despair, and resigned absurdity. There aren’t many performers who would attempt such a thing, and even fewer who could pull it off so sublimely well. It made me laugh, and it made me want to cry—not only because its subject matter is sad, but because it was so gratifying to see performers in such an intellectually and aesthetically challenging tradition performing with such tremendous heart, charisma, and wit. If Bruce Springsteen were an avant-garde dance troupe, he would be Mad King Thomas.
I don’t know what’s next for King, Madaus, and Thomas, but it’s clear that these three artists can do absolutely anything they want to.