Four Lenses: Saint Genet’s Paradisiacal Rites

Inspired by an idea cultivated during a Studio Current session, I have decided to do any further writing on shows I see through the POV of separate “lenses”.

Each of these lenses approaches different perspectives on a show and offers a more complete view than just writing a review and trying to cram all those ideas into one cohesive piece. In some I grant myself the license to judge the show while with others I look at the show more objectively.

The four lenses are:

1. Observational Survey – Here I just describe key details and ideas viewed throughout the show. There is little to no attempt to attach meaning to anything witnessed beyond labeling clear aesthetics or moods.

2. Critically Editorial – Here I take an analytical and philosophical stab at concepts and artistic choices in the show. Rather than label items good or bad, I instead offer interpretations of concepts and themes presented.

3. Investigative Curiosity – Seeing work invites questions and ideas. I ask those questions and explore those ideas.

4. Viewing For Pleasure – The easiest and least objective of the lenses features my personal opinion on how I felt about the work. Again, I seek to avoid labels like good or bad but I don’t shy away from describing ideas the work invited or things I liked or didn’t like.

One important note before I commence: All of this is merely my opinion + observation and nothing greater. Please do not take it too seriously or initiate any conflicts over it.

*Observational survey*

Paradisiacal Rites is a trio of extended imagery-laden dioramic presentations that combine dancing and movement sequences plus sonically overwhelming background music/noise performed by a group of musicians upstage left, and incidences of text and occasional moments of provocation. In the front of house and entryways are a latticework of wine bottles, plus a glass containing a group of leeches. The bar, usually situated in the front of house, is now stationed in a side room stage left from the house. Onstage during the production, a diverse group of performance artists carry out what are effectively extended rituals (per the title Paradisiacal Rites).

Erected reeds cover the stage in act one. Various sequences commence separate from the focal action throughout this act (e.g. a man blowing up balloons in a chair stage left) The key focal sequence: Two men (one of which is show lead Ryan Mitchell) lead an extended but clunky movement sequence that includes female dancers walking towards them, getting spit on by one of the men, and then carried on the shoulder of a shirtless man across the stage.

After being put down each dancer wanders slowly through the reeds onstage. Eventually the ladies (and one man) make their way to other male dancers situated amidst the reeds and commence a sequence where the walking dancers pose gracefully while held aloft by the standing dancers. One man stands center stage and rambles into the microphone as he attempts to recount past Academy Award winners year by year (as another performer stands at a backstage right podium with a mic and occasionally interjects to help him along). He eventually drops to his knees and dissolves into more random babbling, at one point leaking spit onto his microphone as another male artist drops his pants and exposes his genitals to the speaker as he continues talking.

Dancers soon take beer cans and commence a curious sequence of drinking and spilling various powders and liquids. One particular action features spiking a hole in the side of beer cans and drinking from it, beer spraying all over the floor whenever one isn’t consuming.

Each act is separated by an active interlude referred to as a “Knee”. Audience is allowed to move freely as the action continues onstage. During the first Knee the reeds are cleared by all on stage in segueing to act two.

Once the floor is cleared the four dancers find their way to center stage and commence an extended choreography sequence, which produces movement sequences repeated throughout the remainder of the show. Spilled alcohol and powder from the first act litter the stage and dancers occasionally slip while dancing in the mess.

Soon the sequence breaks into a simulated party as beer and wine get passed around, drank and spit upon the stage while everyone simulates rocking out in a wild party. Soon, the awards speaker from the first act is bullied towards the middle of the room, commencing a sequence where he is held down seemingly against his will, his pants are pulled down revealing his bare ass and then another person runs up and spits onto said ass. This is repeated at least a couple times, and during one of these sequences one of the men flashes his genitals mockingly at the victim before he is given the treatment again.

Memory of the following sequence of events gets fuzzy, and I’m not completely sure what took place in act two and what took place in act three. Bags hanging from the stage are cut open, revealing a stream of oil that pours onto the stage. Wine bottles that contain oil are poured onto other performers by our male leads. The female dancers are disrobed and sent to walk around the perimeter of the stage topless during an extended sequence to start act three. They are re-dressed as an elder bald man emerges from his hidden prone position stage right and commences a lengthy, mournfully bitter movement and text sequence with the other performers. One notable sequence: He is held while oil is poured into his right hand by one of the leads. After a certain point he pulls his hand away, then slaps the lead with it. The lead returns, resumes pouring oil and the sequence repeats. Eventually the stuffed birds hanging from the ceiling are extracted by dancers held aloft by other performers.

Two by two performers slowly drift from the stage, and the show ends with show leader Ryan Mitchell giving a small, cursory bow in the darkness before his exit.

*Critically editorial*

This is a show of ritual rather than narrative, though through all its convoluted imagery and sequences it follows a general life to death arc. It is designed to be a spectacle, and thus criticizing its narrative or lack thereof is folly as narrative was not the company’s intent.

The performers through the mayhem gave tremendous focus and commitment to all  moments onstage, a clear exhibition of the fruits of months (in some cases years) of practice. Their engagement became our engagement. I find no issue with their efforts.

Saint Genet created the impression in various interviews and dramaturgy that they were aiming to make a work that is provocative and possibly to some degree offensive. So in that light criticizing the work’s more alienating qualities also misses the point: The work and those who made it in large part intended to create those emotions.

So this leaves a tough spot. Along with being a fascinating show, it’s also in various ways a mean spirited and otherwise misanthropic show that’s very easy to hate. Indeed many audience members left the theater during the first knee interlude. If there are deeper messages or concepts within, the need as a patron to wade through the misanthropy to get there is inevitable and undeniable. Anyone who dares to claim there is no such misanthropy in this show is definitely lying to you and probably themselves.

Saint Genet is forthcoming about accepting the risk of alienating their audience in this production. It’s a colorful and sensory-overwhelming production, one that makes a lot of noise (visual, musical, physical and verbal) under the premise of making statements. Any statement made is very difficult to hear clearly over the din. You are there to witness rather than interpret.

It is a spectacle for fans of spectacle. With regards to making spectacle it succeeds wildly. With regards to creating an environment unlike any other it succeeds wildly. With regards to provoking an audience reaction and unearthing their insecurities it succeeds wildly. If it came in with any intention of accomplishing or discovering anything beyond that, it definitely did not succeed there.

Don’t mistake this as an effort to damn the production. It sought and did a lot. It forged its own expectations and soared to meet them.

*Investigative curiosity*

(Note: I don’t give much thought to program notes or prior interviews when seeing a show. The work should stand on its own. That said, I did read the notes and accompanying essays and am familiar with what Saint Genet seeks in their work. However, I choose to approach this section of curiosity as an otherwise uninitiated observer.)

All of the below are simply questions of my own curiosity. They don’t demand answers and many probably don’t even have an answer.

How much of this production was a collection of individual threads, group discoveries and pieces combined into a large scale show? How much of it was created in a top down fashion and how much of it was culminated from organically created pieces from the ground up?

Why the nudity? Gratuitous nudity is a growing meme in contemporary performance art and I’ve now seen it featured in several Seattle shows. Is it an attempt to culturally desexualize the nude human body? Is it a device, a faux-creative gadget of provocation? Is using it seen as a badge of artistic credibility? Is it merely an act of taboo self-indulgence?

If it is meant to spur a discussion about whether it’s any of these things, why is that intent not made more clear? If every artist in the show who disrobed had stayed clothed, how would the show have changed? Would it have ruined the show?

Why oil? The oil like all else is clearly a symbol of some sort to Saint Genet. It’s also very messy and makes footing difficult, and the symbolism it serves is vague and self-projected at best. Can that symbolism be made more clear without a dismissive request to reference the program notes?

The people who left after the first act… what proved the impetus for their departure? Was it provocation from the nudity, slapping, etc? Was it just the sensory overload that lacked a clearer narrative? The realization that dioramic spectacle was the scope of the show, that said spectacle did not suitably capture their interest and the realization that they had almost two more hours of this to go if they stayed?

Who among them will complain to On the Boards and who among them will do nothing? Given much of the audience enjoyed the show, is Lane Czaplinski even going to care or let it affect his decision making going forward if people do come forward to voice complaints?

What does Lane think about the show? As the AD for On the Boards it’s his professional duty to defend and champion the work. Deep down, does he see a path to cutting edge creative and cultural progress, a path to a future style of performance, through this type of work? Or is it a strange bird he is, for any positive feelings about the end product, glad to leave behind and move on?

Obviously there is a comfort among the ensemble that makes these sequences of cruelty, spitting, slapping and in one case simulated sexual assault acceptable to those doing it. But to uninitiated witnesses it looks like abusive behavior. It appears that Ryan Mitchell has been exploring the theme of abuse (via self abuse) in installation performances during production. He has fed himself to leeches, cut himself and even shot himself with a rifle during the production. Cruelty, both towards the self and towards others, is clearly a prominent theme throughout the production.

Given all this, are the acts of cruelty in this production done for their own sake, to display and provoke a reaction, or does Saint Genet seek something greater in exhibiting this? Is the audience supposed to witness this and be moved to some sort of action? Look at themselves in a distinctly different way?

This Antonin Arnaud quote in the program sums up the apparent modus operandi of Saint Genet and this production. “I propose a theater in which violent physical images crush and hypnotize the sensibility of the spectator seized by the theater as by a whirlwind of higher forces.”

Okay, I can buy this as a sort of mantra fueling and underlying the production. But what is sought? What is the greater motivation aside from mere self indulgence? All art is ultimately self indulgent at its core, but lots of art also seeks a greater reach and purpose beyond the mere indulgence of the artist’s desires. What exactly is Mitchell and Co reaching for, and did they get it?

*Viewing for pleasure*

This lens is important, as I feel people struggle to separate their personal feelings about a show from more objective and potentially useful observations.

I didn’t hate this show, and I didn’t like it. And it definitely wasn’t just a meh show I have no opinion on. The other interesting thing is that this is a show that is designed for a polarized reaction, from a company that thrives on polarized reactions.

Though I completely understand why Saint Genet and OTB stretched this show of rituals to 150 minutes, the show was just flat out too fucking long for most witnesses. In this day and age of faster living and faster minds, attention spans max out at 90-120 minutes and even that is pushing it. By act three many of the remaining audience members were just indulging the conclusion rather than eagerly awaiting it.

There were definitely plenty of empty seats by act three, which is saying something given the show I attended sold out and those seats were filled at curtain. I can see how some people would hate this cruelty-themed spectacle, and I can see how some people would love the sensory overload and provocative aesthetic.

Some parts offended me, but I realized at the same time that this was by design. The show to some degree intends to offend. Instead of driving me off, the show’s artistic choices fascinated me enough to see what happened. That doesn’t mean I loved it. I was curious about where they were taking what was becoming a deliberately created artistic mess.

I’m a believer in artistic risk, and this production was definitely a comprehensive series of artistic risks. I also worry that it will purvey a trend of defining artistic risk among artists as cruelty, nudity, violence and shock images for shock’s sake. And artistic risk requires none of those things to constitute artistic risk. Merely making a show without a director can be a significant artistic risk, as can generating a script or choreography through improvisation instead of producing a conventionally casted and rehearsed two act play or 60 minute dance production.

But I worry shows like this further the idea that the way to go is to shock and offend your audiences, and that true art is about causing yourself or others pain. Shock theatre is at its core sophomoric, and it is almost certainly an outdated and culturally vapid approach. It can be an option, but it would be quite damaging for artists to consider it the default approach to taking risks, or one side of an artistic binary of choices that includes tired, formulaic performance.

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