Don't Fence Me In

One Window looks beautiful and makes us think, but its emotions fail to stick

Confinement is one of the most common themes for artistic exploration -- and one of the darkest. Over the centuries, artists have demonstrated an unmitigated horror of entrapment in works as diverse as Euripides' The Trojan Women, Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time (written and premiered during the French composer's years in a World War II prison camp), and British sculptor Rachel Whiteread's House.

In the current political and social climate, anti-imprisonment sentiments are running particularly high, no more so than on our local stages. From Gillian Slovo and Victoria Brittain's Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, which explores the mistreatment of detainees at the U.S. military base, to Adam Bock's The Typographer's Dream, dealing with the way people feel trapped by their jobs, theatergoers are receiving the same message over and over again: Confinement -- no matter what form it takes -- is a bad thing.

It's liberating, then, to discover some members of the arts community taking a different point of view. One Window, a new performance piece by the Erika Shuch Performance Project premiering at Intersection for the Arts, treats the theme of imprisonment more positively than most. Loosely structured around a couple dealing with the ins and outs of daily life together in an urban apartment, the work explores our ability to live with, feel comforted by, and sometimes even transcend the boundaries that surround us.

Thinking Inside the Box: Melanie Elms.
Jeff Fohl
Thinking Inside the Box: Melanie Elms.


Created by Shuch in collaboration with performers Jennifer Chien, Melanie Elms, Vong Phrommala, Tommy Shepherd, and Danny Wolohan and production designer Sean Riley

Through May 7

Tickets are $9-15



Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (between 15th and 16th streets), S.F.

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Director Erika Chong Shuch fuses text, music, dance, drama, video, architecture, and sculpture to express her ideas about the ambivalent nature of confinement. In the opening scene, for instance, performer Danny Wolohan appears onstage carrying a cardboard box. He sits down cross-legged and proceeds to empty the box, diligently encircling himself with an old camera, a computer mouse, an Etch A Sketch toy, and other objects -- the flotsam and jetsam of everyday existence. At another point, Wolohan industriously builds a framework of interlocking rectangles on the floor using lengths of wood, screws, and a power tool. Echoing the wooden rectangular structure of the set, Wolohan's little building project divides the floor space into isolated compartments.

Shuch's largely earth-bound choreographic style conveys a similar idea. The five cast members are rarely seen leaping balletically about the stage; instead, their movements -- though frequently graceful -- are predominantly ponderous, often depending upon the support of other performers. Certain motifs, such as performers lying on the floor within the confined spaces defined by Wolohan's makeshift rectangles, also serve to emphasize the idea of entrapment.

In many ways, One Window is the antithesis of Whiteread's House. Far from being a military bunker-like concrete block molded to resemble the unforgiving contours of a suburban family home, the set of One Window is fluid and mutable: Boundaries are erected only to be torn down, conventionally nightmarish images to do with captivity turn out to be sources of pleasure, and suffocatingly small spaces become big and airy from one moment to the next.

Constructed from clear plastic sheeting suspended between thin horizontal and vertical strips of wood, production designer Sean Riley's set appears flimsy and insubstantial. Making a break for freedom through the walls of this paper-thin "prison" would be easy. Similarly, the text conveys a sense of regimentation through the emotionless repetition of common phrases like "fix my hair" and "rattle the keys," but there's also a sense of acceptance, even delight at the idea of being trapped. As one character puts it: "I have this dream. I'm underwater, yet I can breathe." Riley's use of lighting exquisitely conveys this ability to feel at home in inhospitable surroundings. Viewed at times through the translucent backlit plastic walls, performers ascending ladders behind the set look as if they are moving calmly and naturally through water, not waiting to exhale.

The way in which Shuch uses her cast also suggests the idea of "thinking outside the box." Each collaborator comes with his or her own particular discipline: Wolohan's primary skill is acting; Jennifer Chien, Melanie Elms, and Vong Phrommala are dancers; and Tommy Shepherd is an expert musician. Yet One Window forces the performers to work beyond their usual skills. For example, all cast members participate in the production's musical moments, singing together in tuneful harmony. And Wolohan and Shepherd, who look more like beer-swilling football players than dancers, are surprisingly agile and light on their toes.

There's an old gag about performance art that goes like this: Q: What do you get when you cross a comedian with a performance artist? A: A joke that no one understands. One of Shuch's great talents is her ability to bring lightheartedness and a coherent structure to conventionally dark and troubling ideas, appealing to all the senses without overburdening our powers of comprehension or veering into superficiality. Shuch can see the perks in imprisonment, just as she found both humor and horror in the taboo subject of cannibalism (in 2004's All You Need); her brand of performance art is deliciously steeped in black comedy.

The only problem with One Window is its failure to make much of an emotional impact. This hauntingly beautiful work appeals to the intellect through its intricately woven visual and aural motifs and deftly executed performances. Yet it's hard not to feel detached from the action onstage, as if it's all happening in an unreachable landscape, behind the plastic and wooden walls, underwater. Seeing this show feels a bit like watching a bunch of shimmery goldfish swimming about in a glass bowl: They look content in their confinement, but you haven't a clue as to why.

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