Wesley's Theatre History Notes on B. Madonna at La MaMa

photo by Odo
Gertrude Stein once offered her central complaint of theatre as: 
 "your emotion concerning that play is always either behind or ahead of the play at which you are looking and to which you are listening. So your emotion as a member of the audience is never going on at the same time as the action of the play."

Audience expectation is difficult to transcend, especially during the progress of a production. The work's ability to transform organically as though it's a classical composition was a right garnered easily by painting, sculpture and, ultimately, literature, but theatre's ability to be present and not lag in the moments that occurred previously, or brandish the actions of the future is a continual struggle. B. Madonna at La MaMa continually transcended the state of theatrical expectations and constructed a state of perpetual presence which wasn't unlike the effect of viewing the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls.

Maureen Fleming, who served as choreographer/director as well as the performance's central performing figure, is a noted Butoh performer. While there are many different aesthetics Butoh takes, the most iconic aspect of the style, and the aspect that B. Madonna relies on, is nude performers, painted white, performing to glacial precision. It was the slowness at which she moves which allowed the full affect of the performance. Her actions weren't the flitting and fleeting actions of politics and thought, she moved with the skill and the force of nature. Her performance wasn't an idealistic argument, it was plate tectonics. Her work was counteracted in a particular scene by Christopher Odo, who also served as the production designer, wielded a rod, with which he displayed the struggle to find the extent of speed. These dance pieces were offered in vignettes which were framed by clean blackouts which included any necessary shifts in scenery.

The performance was framed around a perspective of the Persephone myth. For those who might be unfamiliar with the story, in the myth Persephone is raped and ripped from the world into hell by Hades where she becomes queen. Then, at long last, she is relinquished back into the living world. The simplicity of this plot allows for the myth to work more as thematic framework than force the piece to work centrally as a story based production. Every aspect of this production found its core in brave simplicity. The music, which includes work by Philip Glass as well as original arrangements for accordion, drums and operatic soundscapes, as well as the written portions written by David Henry Hwang worked with simple repetitious movements. The musical repetition, matched with a change, however minor, in the visual production landscape created something of an artistic primer off of which the different shades of Maureen Fleming's dance could make themselves more evident. The scenery was clean and mostly worked on a basic physical entity of push and pull, such as a large taunt sash, stairs, and fabric that was manipulated around the dancer by rods (a la Loie Fuller.) Curtains and scrims were also used to project videos of the performer in a three dimensional space. Another feature of the production was an ever present circular pool of water which manipulated the laws of physics. It often served as mirror to the performance, so any upward fight was equally resolved as a downward struggle in the pool. 

Each aspect of B. Madonna offers to its New York audience something that their day to day existence can not offer, the opportunity to be present and open to everything that they are experiencing. Maureen Fleming, by stripping her body of clothing, her performance of crude "personality" and "ego" was nude inside and out through nearly the entire performance and easily transcended any prudishness or bland shock value that is so often aligned with the nude body on stage. In this way of transcendence the production made manifest more than a story and more than a personality, it made manifest a soul. 
photo by Emily Boland

B. Madonna
Choreography/ Direction: Maureen Fleming
Designer: Christopher Odo
with Maureen Fleming & Christopher Odo
Writer: David Henry Hwang
Sound Design: Brett R. Jarvis
Composer & Musicians: Philip Glass, Bruce Brubaker, Guy Klucevsek, Kaoru Watanabe

Ellen Stewart Theatre: 66 East 4th Street
Until November 3rd