Love that dares
speak its name
by Paul Parish
The six dancers of the Joe Goode Performance Group knocked the ball out of the park at Friday night's performance of Hush. The house looked all but sold-out. The show is tight, ready for prime-time, with Broadway levels of production, and it fits so perfectly onto the deep, deep stage of Z Space, your eye is led in a fascinating dance around the space, from shadows to highlights, which corresponds to the emotional curves of a drama about having to bite your tongue and say nothing. Hush is in form a musical – all the performers sing, dance, and act – raised to a level of seriousness beyond "mere entertainment," while remaining ferociously entertaining. The direction is brilliantly synesthetic, the body language is telling. But also, each element of the theatrical design gets a featured moment, like the musicians in a jazz band—with a special star-turn for the Foley artist/sound-effects man Sudhu Tewari, who gets to upstage the performers in one choice bit about a going-nowhere marriage.
Hush is, of course, what until recently we queers had to do about our longings. Don't ask, don't tell, don't act on it, don't get caught. It's been one of Goode's major themes in 30-odd years here making gay dance-theater, work that has been part of the education process that has changed the way the whole rest of the country regards our rights. Goode has been hugely successful, the recipient of many awards. His first SF Isadora Duncan Award came in the 1980s, New York's Bessie a decade ago. In 1987 he made a masterpiece, Twenty-nine Effeminate Gestures, which made the B.A.R. 's first dance critic, the late great Keith White, meditate on how Goode works our nerves: "Any one of those gestures could have gotten a brick thrown through your window where I come from." White further wondered what Goode's sizeable straight audience saw in it, since for queers, 29 EG drove our adrenaline levels through the roof. I felt like my head was exploding as I watched it. That piece, which made him nationally famous when it was televised on NPR, was unusually straightforward for Goode. Though it was ironic, the levels of anger and defiance compressed within it were impossible to misunderstand. It was the same subtext as the Widow Norton's.
Goode has always worked in modules: fragmentary skits, dances, songs, monologues that are juxtaposed like the shards of verse in T.S. Eliot's Waste Land, that the viewer has to put together to complete. The same in Hush. The bold straight Penny (Damara Vita Ganley) and her shy queer friend (the tender Melecio Estrella) make a pact early in the show to protect each other – she offers, he accepts – which carries the arc of the show. We see their life and their world as islands picked out by down-spotlights (lighting by Jim French) on a black-box stage – the bar at Sam's, where they hang out; the bandstand with its open mike, where a sweet slacker (Andrew Ward) recites a doofus poem; the wall he and Carlos (Felipe Barrueto-Cabello) lean on as they ponder "what happened to Penny"; the kitchen where Ward and his wife (Jessica Swanson) talk past each other; the porch where Penny shares with her boyfriend her insight that her shy friend "has feelings" for Carlos; the chain of square blocks of light on the dark stage that indicate Penny's way home the night she is raped.
Photo: Margo Moritz
The first half of Hush is packed with brilliant numbers; Sudhu Tewari's clip-clop walking sounds create acute anxiety in us as Penny walks home and gets waylaid – or were they for the executive wife, clicking about the kitchen as she itemizes chores for her slacker husband to tend to? The same effect is used later to ironic Brechtian distancing effect as Tewari is brought out of the background and placed right in the middle of a scene between the unhappy married folk, as if he were the elephant in the room that they both are ignoring.
Such cleverness abounds, and is lavished on the whole show. If there's anything to complain about, it's a contradiction in what we want for the shy boy, whose butt gets made fun of by the good old boys in the "you know he wants it" way. His defiant speech in riposte got loud support from the audience, though this was perhaps more a result of his surprising articulacy about gender, sexuality, and romance. As a theater event, it reminded me of Lisa Kudrow's stunningly high-tech explanation of how she invented the glue on Post-its in Romy and Michele's High School Reunion.
So when the gay love dance comes at the end, when our sweet boy gets together with Carlos, one wishes it were developed more substantially. Was it ever really plausible that someone as hot as Melecio Estrella could be a timid virgin? He exudes Caravaggiesque seductiveness, even when he's trying not to: he is a darling, the type of St, Sebastian, or Lady Chatterley's lover. Perhaps the problem is Ben Juodvalkis' emphatically triumphant music, which buried the love-dance in major chords and put me in mind of Chariots of Fire.
Special praise to Damara Vita Ganley, whose performance was electrifying.
Through Oct. 5 at Z Space, 450 Florida St., SF.