Remembering is cathartic in dance-theater piece, ‘Girl Gods’

Sruti Desai and Cheryl Delostrinos dance in "Girls Gods," which is at the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University through Oct. 25.

MARINA LEVITSKAYA

Sruti Desai and Cheryl Delostrinos dance in “Girl Gods,” which is at the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University through Oct. 25.

A heap of dirt lies in the corner, silently reproaching the cast of “Girl Gods,” the dance-theater piece that the Pat Graney Company, from Seattle, is presenting this weekend at the Alexander Kasser Theater in Montclair. Don’t these women, whose job it is to sanitize and purify the home, have any self-respect? How could they have overlooked this unsightly accumulation of grime?

Indignant viewers may ask themselves what more we can expect from this crew of feminists, appearing in MSU’s Peak Performances series. What’s next? Roving dust bunnies?

A bunny does appear in “Girl Gods,” sort of. She’s the old woman who wanders onstage dressed in a child’s get-up — a ducktail frock, all frills and ribbons, with ruffled ankle socks and a bow in her hair. Played by Betty Moon McDonald, this character totters across the stage with a teacup and saucer rattling in her hand. She sits at a table and begins to write while, nearby, dancer Sruti Desai curls on the floor in her nightgown, eating candy.

At first Desai eats demurely, allowing herself to taste a single sugary treat that she places meditatively on her tongue. But then, all of a sudden, she has crossed a line. She’s stuffing herself, swallowing handfuls of candy and upturning the box as an overflow of red spit drools out of her mouth and down onto her fresh, white nightie. This woman’s self-denial has gone full-throttle into reverse, leading to a gluttonous, candy discharge like a hemorrhage.

Desai’s solitary binge has a counterpart in another food-related episode. This time a group of women have gathered for dinner; and they’re so hungry they make drumming noises, ready to riot. Yet after Sara Jinks has carved the chicken, ceremoniously doling out a meager slice to each of her guests, the group falls silent. Bowing their heads resignedly, they are unable to nourish themselves in public without feeling ashamed; and one of them slips away to retrieve a cupcake she has hidden, feasting on it in secret.

Apart from the mess in the corner, have these women forgotten anything else? Why, yes, as a matter of fact, they have. They’ve forgotten how to get angry. Though at times they erupt in rambunctious movement, with Desai and Cheryl Delostrinos thrashing on the floor or teaching a baby doll how to flail its arms and throw a tantrum, for the greater part of this understated but brilliantly provocative evening, the women remain dutiful, passive and repressed.

Amy Denio’s episodic score also feels muffled, incorporating distant traffic noises, wind chimes and the melancholy sound of an accordion. Occasionally we hear a pop tune, but Denio’s playlist isn’t reassuring. How about The Crystals’ “He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss)?” Set designer Holly Batts has built walls of white boxes, suggesting the cold interior of an igloo. Except for that pile of dirt, the stage feels antiseptic — sprayed, mopped and scrubbed clean of unpleasant emotions. Periodically the image of a woman submerged underwater is projected onto the wall.

The wall has gaps and cracks in it, though. It has cubbyholes in which a woman can stash food, and boxes filled with clothing that no longer fits. Perhaps the wall conceals stored memories, too. Graney knows the act of remembering can be cathartic, so we hear voices reminiscing. One woman recalls that in her childhood home, only her father was permitted to become angry. Another laughs, describing her husband’s pathetic attempt to cook dinner. “Girl Gods” is still bitter about the 1960s, the era of “The Feminine Mystique,” when a woman’s career options seemed limited to secretarial work, nursing or serving meals on an airplane.

Like rolling in the dirt, sharing these memories appears liberating. The crucial moment comes when Jody Kuehner takes Jenny Peterson by the shoulders and gently undresses her. Then, in a scene that is half psychotherapy and half day-spa treatment, the other women apply wet towels on which lines of text, like diary entries, have been written in longhand. When Peterson stands again, her nude body crinkled with words, she instantly seems older and wiser.

Somehow, Graney brings us around to a happy ending. “Girl Gods’ ” final image shows the old woman, McDonald, seated in an armchair upholstered in grass, with a little girl astride her knee. The circle of life is complete; the ages reconciled; the place, eternal spring. It seems a little dirt can be useful, if it prompts you to start digging.

The Pat Graney Company performs “Girl Gods” again, Oct. 25 at 3 p.m. Visit peakperfs.org.

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