By GUS SOLOMONS, JR.
Smart and versatile Karinne Keithley wrote what she calls a “sideways adaptation” of Hugo Ball’s 1920 surreal novel “Tenderenda Der Phantast,” performed this past weekend at Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church. She also danced and sang in her mini-epic “Tenderenda or The Restrain Refrain of St. Laurentius T,” for which she created the soundscape.
Due to the convoluted logic of the text, the philosophical notions posed by the tale are fascinating, but impenetrable in a single viewing. And the acoustic resonance of the sanctuary of St. Mark’s Church makes the live and recorded text often unintelligible. Despite its wry humor, savvy performers and detailed production, “Tenderenda” baffles.
First, two anonymous dancers in the dark flip transparencies of Keithley’s primitive drawings on an overhead projector. Then, live performers enact the tale, which the Chronicler (Peter Schmitz) recites in a gently reassuring tone from the balcony above the dancing space. He tells us that Saint Laurentius Tenderenda punched a hole between the World and the Void, before climbing into the belly of a Bear (Jeff Larson), who is obsessed with dancing. From time to time, the Saint—in the form of a three-sided icon based on a medieval-style painting by Rodney Webre—appears atop the Bear’s midsection to make pronouncements, causing writhing gastric distress in the beast.
The wind that blows from the Void, the tale tells us, ultimately turns Uda (Keithley) into a graceful tree, Gnimm (Chris Yon) into a vintner and Witolde (Katy Pyle) into the Saint of A Thousand-and-One Points of View, among other things. Between narrative episodes, Keithley sprinkles gestural interludes by a forest of eight trees—Melissa Briggs, Kimiye Corwin, Ruthie Epstein, Taryn Griggs, Mindy Nelson, Erin Owen, Sara Smith and Netta Yerushalmy—wearing peasant skirts by Swati Argade and in stocking feet.
There’s a charming, purposely home-made quality about Keithley’s oeuvre—simple gestural movement, done with a pedestrian offhandedness. Yon skitters with deadpan wittiness, like a latter-day Charlie Chaplin, pees on a post, mugs hilariously. Pyle tiptoes, fresh as a fairy-tale princess, the embodiment of innocence and vulnerability. She sits and contemplates; she poses with a pinwheel in one hand in her saintly incarnation. Larson, bearded and wearing brown, galumphs around menacingly and also pees on a post—several times.
And Keithley, whether writing in her journal, lip-synching an electronically synthesized voice or spreading her arms delicately as the graceful silver linden tree, maintains her characteristic deadpan projection.
The simple straightforwardness of the gestural movement is engaging at first, but relentless understatement wears thin over the hour-plus duration of the piece—one craves more dynamic variety, more physicality and perhaps less textual density. Hand it to Keithley for courageously biting off more than she could chew and for recruiting an impressive crew of collaborators, including also costumer Chaja Birdsong—who designed Uda and Witolde’s aprons and babushkas, and a suit jacket for Gnimm with goat’s horns growing out of the back—and paintings by Mariangela Fremura, Tyler Loftis, Chris Protas, Dubi Talpaz and Ilil Talpaz that ring the background.
As ever, Kathy Kaufmann’s imaginative lighting lends professional polish to the ambitiously modest production.