Two men on stage: similar heights, similar complexions, slightly different builds, dressed exactly the same. Brothers, right? So we forgive their rough-housing. After all, aren't those pajama bottoms they're both wearing? Boys will be boys. Even when they grow into men and the horseplay turns more physical and the spelling of who plays victor and who victim is starkly represented for us in one standing over the prone body of another. It's nothing we haven't seen in MMA.
But what happens if you dress those boys up as girls? How do we read the sibling violence then? What kind of statements about gender and patriarchy are we being asked to contemplate? Such are the questions that form the heart of Cain and Abel, a new work of dance-theatre by The Biting School's Arash and Aryo Khakpour that is on at the Firehall Arts Centre through this evening.
It makes sense that the brothers Khakpour are drawn to the Biblical story of fratricide. Purely at a meta level, it allows them to explore--in highly physical and theatrical ways--both the differences and the overlaps in their respective training as dance artist (Arash) and theatre performer (Aryo). Professionally each has regularly crossed over into the other's discipline, and so I can imagine that over the years there have been more than a few conversations about who has booked a show and who hasn't. And yet, not withstanding individual set pieces and the structuring motif of repetition, this is not only a work about one-upmanship. For this particular take on Cain and Abel also happens to be read through Jean Genet's classic play about sisterly and sadomasochistic role-playing, The Maids.
At a certain point in the piece, having divided the stage in half with a bucket of stones, Arash and Aryo find themselves upstage, whereupon they enact for us the aforementioned victor/victim scenario, each taking turns lying under or standing over the other as they slowly move across the stage. Thereafter they remove their pajama bottoms and trainers and fetch from the clothes line in front of them the various accoutrements of a French maid's outfit: black pantyhose, black dress, white apron, and pick plastic gloves. What follows is a condensed--and, I must say, exceedingly compelling--run-through of the basic plot of Genet's play, with the object of the sisters' murderous fantasies, Madame, nicely represented by a white dress that descends from the ceiling.
But what could have been a confused mash-up of different stories of sibling rivalry is elevated to a timely comment on gendered violence by the repetition of the physical vocabulary that anchored the first half of the piece. All of sudden when we see one of the brothers/sisters lying prone on the floor with her skirt hiked above her waist we are reminded that women pay an unequal price for men's compensatory anxieties about how they measure up against each other. We have only to look at what the jockeying of a certain fraternity of male politicians is accomplishing south of the border this weekend to understand this, and as such the message of this bold work of hybrid performance couldn't be more relevant.