The Joe Goode Performance Group's latest work transforms the large space of the Forum at Yerba Buena Gardens into a theatrical, albeit rather lethargic, playground. The Maverick Strain -- composed of rambling dances, music, dialogue, and visuals -- offers a melancholy last waltz for the individualistic spirit of the American West. It's not easy being a maverick; it's a downright strain.
Ever since his solo dance-theater concerts in the early '80s, Goode has startled audiences with provocative uses of theatrical space. His latest is no exception. While the Club Foot Orchestra Quintet strums and plunks country music, cowgirl stagehands divide the audience into groups and send us to view three successive performance sites designed by visual artist Nayland Blake.
We walk around a hut of stretched black canvas. Holes allow us to bend down and peer inside. We get a peek of a naked man taking a bath, a solitary fiddle player. Two men embrace in slow motion. At first many of the audience members are hesitant, don't get close enough to look. Out of boredom, if nothing else, eventually everyone starts rubbing up against the cloth.
Next we visit two cowgirls in a corral. They are framed by a wooden fence, a wall of well-tied lassos. A whiskey bottle rests on a ledge. The older gal mourns the loss of her looks; the younger gal, a lack of purpose. "Walk tall and don't take nothing from nobody," says the elder. They squat, extend themselves in back bends, and become cartoons of sassy vigor as they stamp on the seats of their chairs.
Led up a ramp to the next performance site, we arrive at the top of a tower and look into a dark pit where Goode and Liz Burritt chat in bed. "I need a picture of Doris Day in a fuzzy sweater," she says. "Fresh out of them," he replies. They search for movie icons on which to hang their existential dilemmas. Burritt's character is agoraphobic and has stopped caring for anybody; Goode's character likes to dress up as John Wayne as a way to escape from the memories of dying friends.
Like many gay male artists, Goode cannot help having death reappear as thematic material. In Remembering the Pool at the Best Western (Goode's 1990 masterpiece), the death of a loved one provoked a journey to find personal meaning. In The Maverick Strain, accounts of ill friends are recited in bored tones. Death is inescapable, but dull.
The audience is herded to the center of the room. A flaming, drag-princess, Miguel Gutierrez, dressed in silly pink satin, stands over us on a set of bleachers. Is it the wayward shape of his pineal gland or his hypothalamus that has made him into the queer he is today? The question becomes a song, an outrageous nightclub act. He, apparently, can overcome the strain of being a maverick.
Goode has always been more interested in experimenting with formal structure than story. Narrative, culled from repetition and humor and anecdote, has been his vehicle for taking the audience on a ride through risks in form. What made Goode's work exciting in the past was the unpredictable nature of the ride, the experimentation. For those who haven't seen Goode before, The Maverick Strain will be a unique experience. For those who have, it's more of the same. And unfortunately for a piece about the western spirit, at least in its first incarnation, it lacks much get up and go.
The Maverick Strain plays Thursday through Sunday, May 30-June 2, at the Forum, in the Center for the Arts in Yerba Buena Gardens, Howard & Third St., S.F.; call 978-