Saturday, January 20, 2018

PuSh 2018: MDLSX at the Roundhouse

Enrico Casagrande and Daniela Niccolò, the co-artistic directors of the Rimini-based Italian company Motus, have been making acclaimed theatre together since 1991. Much of that work is adapted from classic texts (including works by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Genet, Cocteau, and so on), and is built on a large ensemble. For the past twelve years Silvia Calderoni has been a key member of that ensemble. However, in MDLSX, the work Motus is currently touring to the PuSh Festival, and which plays the Roundhouse through this Sunday, Calderoni is alone on stage, and the story she tells is mostly based on her own life.

That story is one of the terrors of gender binarism: about how Silvia grew up as a tomboy; about her parents' and medical practitioners' struggles to diagnose and understand her condition clinically; about how she eventually ran away from home, cut her hair, and lived for a time as a man; and, finally, how she decided to refuse the straitjacket of gender identification altogether (despite still answering to female pronouns). While much of this is narrated to us by Silvia (in Italian, with English surtitles), two additional--and dramaturgically essential--elements of the production design are the soundtrack of songs that Silvia plays (twenty-two tracks in all, starting with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and ending with REM), and the video projected onto a circular portal in the upstage screen with which Silvia interacts.

For the music, Silvia acts as both DJ and interpreter, each song cued to a stage of shameful discovery or political enlightenment in her life, and with the movement that accompanies it on a triangular bit of shiny cloth placed between her console and props table and the audience at once playing to and confounding our desire for bodily legibility (as when, early on in the show, doing her best Iggy Pop, the hipless Silvia shimmies out of her buttoned pants without the help of her hands). This deliberate thwarting of the standard spectating protocols for how we read performers' bodies within a proscenium staging is augmented by the fact that for much of the show Silvia acts with her back to the audience--an "affront" that is all about scrambling the traditional dramaturgy of social interaction, which in turn is all about how we present to others (to paraphrase Erving Goffman).

Much of the video footage is taken from home movies, and features images of Silvia as a young child and teenager growing up before our eyes. As Enrico said in the talkback following the performance that I was privileged to moderate, this archive of old VHS tapes proved a goldmine for the creators, its projection and overlaying with a live feed of Silvia's on-stage image as she interacts with or stares down her younger self producing an uncanny palimpsest of identities in which sum and parts are neither collapsable nor wholly separable. That video footage of Silvia singing with her father both begins and ends the performance is also a very moving testament to the fact that part of the tyranny of a binary gender system is that it doesn't just divide individuals, but also families.

Not that this show is on-stage therapy for Silvia--or the audience, for that matter. In print, and again last night at the talkback, Silvia and Daniela confirmed that it's designed to be a party, a celebration, an emancipation even. To that end, mixed in with the first-person testimony, we also get excerpts from Silvia's reading in queer and trans theory, in particular Paul B. Periciado's Contrasexual Manifesto. And, finally, while it is not announced officially anywhere in the print materials associated with the show, a main intertext for Silvia's story is Jeffrey Eugenides' 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Middlesex, about the unforgettable Detroit-born intersex character of Callie/Cal. Passages and plot points from the novel are woven liberally into the stage show's 80 minutes. The fact that the creators make no effort to distinguish what is Silvia's story and what is Cal's is an apt metaphor for the entire fiction that is gender. As I suggested at the end of the talkback last night, the problem of fit between bodies and categories is a problem with the categories, not the bodies.


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