Indie Artists on New Plays #13: Steven Cherry looks at B.Madonna playing at the Ellen Stewart Theatre
In architecture, form follows function. In sculpture and dance—the two closest art forms to architecture—form and function are often one and the same. So it is in B.Madonna, a powerful evening of butoh-like dance by the performance artist Maureen Fleming.
Wikipedia describes butoh by saying it "typically involves playful and grotesque imagery, taboo topics, extreme or absurd environments, and is traditionally performed in white body makeup with slow hyper-controlled motion."
B.Madonna is indeed playful in its imagery, and Fleming uses to great effect her body as a four-limbed polymorphous substance. The key is her "slow hyper-controlled motion"—it's what puts her art in the sensually stunning zone between dance and sculpture. One piece, for example, opens with her prone near the top rung of a tier of stadium steps. She then oozes down, like white lava, one step at a time.
Perhaps the most striking effect, used in several of the nine pieces that make up this work, is a black-and-white projection of her, engaged in one set of hyper-controlled motions, while she is on stage, performing the same or related hyper-controlled motions. The projection is several times her own size, and often shows up echoed—as if (and this may actually be the case) there are two, sometimes three mesh screens on the stage that catch the image multiple times. A filter over the projector is manipulated in real time to sharpen or blur the images.
Other props serve architecturally as well—a volcano or tree trunk-like pedestal on which the first piece opens, a pool (of real water) in which the images on stage can appear reflected, a pair of white tree branches that eventually become wings.
Auditory props include music by Phillip Glass (from Koyaanisqatsi, if I recognize it correctly) and two other composers, played live by three musicians in three offstage locations (piano, drums, and accordion); the sounds of running water and thunder; and a few brief sets of words, some by David Henry Hwang, others apparently quoting something Fleming's mother said.
As a play, "B.Madonna" comes up against the limits of butoh. The quotes of the artist's mother refer to a car accident they were in when she was two years old, but require program notes to fully make sense. Likewise, Hwang's brief writings in the playbill explain more than his words during the show. And the accident seems to have inspired, but not really have any connection to, the arc of the show, which refers vaguely to the legend of Persephone. Fleming's "character" on stage morphs from powerful to wounded to captured underground to ascendant, taking flight with the aforementioned branches/wings. The show's title, which apparently in earlier iterations was "Black Madonna," stems from the idea that the Black Madonna is an earlier and more primordial myth from which Persephone springs.
None of this matters. The astonishing geometry on stage—at its most striking, a red garment stretches in an acute triangle from a single point at the top left of the stage to Fleming, wrapped and unraveling in the triangle's base at bottom right; the asexual drama of Fleming's bodypainted muscleature; the use of the projector and atonal music to create Hades as a realm of shadows and fog, are worth the price of admission and the two hours of heightened awareness this show—neither play nor dance nor sculpture, but some unique fusing of them—requires.