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Okwui Okpowasili, “Bronx Gothic” (all photographs by Ian Douglas and courtesy COIL)

Performance Space 122’s COIL Festival is one of a number of imaginative theater festivals to descend on New York City each winter. The excitement about the new and against-the-grain work presented in these showcases seems to be growing year by year; newcomers like the Special Effects Festival are popping up, and the Under the Radar Lounge, a DJed post-show hangout for performers and audience members alike has extended open party invitations to COIL, Prototype, and American Realness festival-goers.

Many of the COIL shows have wound down by now, but two that caught my eye, “Have I No Mouth” and “Bronx Gothic” are still running.  Another well received COIL show, Reid Farrington’s “Tyson vs. Ali,” has been extended until January 25 at the Three Legged Dog.

Okwui Okpowasili, “Bronx Gothic”

Dublin-based theater company Brokentalkers, one of the only international companies to be presented this year at COIL, have brought their haunting and surprising “Have I No Mouth” to the Baryshnikov Arts Center.  (One of the exciting things about COIL this year is that because P.S. 122’s East Village home is under major construction theatergoers are sent to a variety of exciting spaces throughout the city.  It does make it harder to get back to party at the Lounge, though.)

Both “Have I No Mouth” and “Bronx Gothic” are autobiographical in nature, to different extents.  “Have I No Mouth” features real-life mother and son Ann and Feidlim Cannon (Feidlim is a founding member of Brokentalkers), and their real-life psychotherapist Erich Keller. The piece is loosely structured like a therapy session, where Ann and Feidlim, guided by Erich, air their feelings about the deaths of Sean, husband and father, and Baby Sean, a son and brother who died at only 15 hours old.

“Bronx Gothic,” a solo work by actress/dancer Okwui Okpowasili which is described as “partially true,” is a story told through the reading of notes passed between two young girls growing up in the Bronx, interspersed with fragments of song and movement. Some of the letters are as humorous, impassioned, dramatic, and naïve as 11 year olds’ notes should be, but often intensely sexual and with a poetic undercurrent of pain and fear that alludes to a deep darkness in these girls’ lives and minds.

Brokentalkers, “Have I No Mouth”

The idea of theater as therapy raises a lot of red flags, but “Have I No Mouth” is singular in that it owns therapy as a premise rather than a perk for performers and unasked-for by product for audience members. Therapy in this show seems closer to what therapy really is: hard work. Rather than alienating the audience with their own personal history, Ann, Feidlim and Erich actively included us in their process with a relaxing and focusing exercise at the beginning of the show, and later with “anger balloons” that had been passed out with the programs, into which we blew all our anger. We were told to release the anger in a controlled way, making for a delightful and very squeaky interval.

While “Have I No Mouth” relies heavily both content and structure-wise on the Canon family’s relationship with their psychotherapist, “Bronx Gothic” depicts a world in which the idea of seeking third-party emotional support is probably pretty close to impossible. Okpokwasili’s intense physical work throughout the piece is a manifestation of psychological frustration and pain that hurts to watch. There are danced sections noted in the script only as “Broken Body Movement” and there is no better description of the controlled violence of that specific choreography. The characters in “Bronx Gothic” would never have the luxury of a calm, articulate guide through body-breaking emotional storms, and that reality is reflected in the structure of the work.

Brokentalkers, “Have I No Mouth”

I had heard about the fierceness of Okpokwasili’s performing several times over the years, and to see her in person is to be almost blown backwards, like a sharp wind taking your breath away. I was riveted from the moment I entered Danspace Project at St. Marks Church-in-the-Bowery to see “Bronx Gothic.” For the entire 30 or so minutes between the opening of the house and the start of the performance, Okpokwasili stood in a far corner of the playing space with her back to the audience, her body vibrating and convulsing to what sounded like “Hunting Bears” by Radiohead overlaid with a thick, repetitive beat.  There were moments in this physical prelude where her head would remain almost oddly still as the rest of her body shook violently, and she would slowly turn to look over her shoulder at the audience, communicating a sense of powerlessness over what was happening.  By the time the performance began she was shining with sweat and dripping onto the crumpled paper notes that she read in a remarkably controlled voice by the light of a single lamp.

What’s striking about these two works in relation to one another is that these artists are exploring similar themes of loss, rage, desire and trauma in radically different ways.  Brokentalkers come at their subject like — yes — therapists, peeling away layers of meaning in a measured way, checking to see if the audience is on the same page. There is abstraction and complexity in the structure and content of the piece, but as an audience member I felt taken in hand, safe, part of a team. Watching Okpokwasili’s piece, on the other hand, I felt voyeuristic, alone, and somewhat afraid.  Nothing is explained, and the narrative itself is kaleidoscopic, plot points and characters refracted and subject to change.

There is one moment towards the end of “Have I No Mouth” during which words do fail and the action becomes purely physical, which because it is such a departure from the rest of the show is a particularly affecting moment. A sequence in which an increasingly desperate Feidlim orders his father (played by Erich, his head swathed in bandages) to do things (“Rock me.  Hold me.  Hold me.”) devolves into a crazed fight scene/dance scene, Feidlim’s anger at his father finally gaining control over his body and his words. Okpowasili goes against her audience’s expectations at the end of “Bronx Gothic” by doing the opposite: looking more directly at the audience and seeming to step out from behind her characters to speak as herself. The narrative that we have been able to grasp up until then fractures even further, becoming a kind of exploded oral history as the identities of the two women played by Okpokwasili seem to bleed into one another, and memories become dreamlike and changeable.

These two works are beautiful and masterfully executed examples of what theater can do and be. The artists are not casually exploiting their own pain and that of others for the sake of entertainment, but confronting their own experiences in a thoughtful, compelling way that I think probably does everyone some good.

Have I No Mouth continues at the Baryshnikov Arts Center (450 W 37th St, West Side, Manhattan) through January 26.

Bronx Gothic continues at Danspace Project (131 E 10th St, East Village, Manhattan) through February 1.

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Emma Wiseman

Emma Wiseman is a performer and theater maker originally from Weston, CT and now living in Brooklyn, NY.