Faye Driscoll wants to be your friend. The choreographer, whose dangerously seductive piece “Thank You for Coming: Space,” opened on April 11 in the Peak Performances series at Montclair State University, begins by chatting us up.
Driscoll’s opening monologue resembles innocence itself. Humbly thanking us for attending her show, she sympathetically acknowledges the bother involved in getting dressed and traveling to the theater. She appears reassuringly normal. Wearing a T-shirt and jeans, with arms hanging loosely at her sides, the choreographer is the sort of young woman who might approach you in a parking lot, or at the playground, to ask an unthreatening question. In this brightly illuminated theater-in-the-square, with the audience seated on gleaming white risers surrounding the stage, Driscoll can have nothing to hide.
As it turns out, this is how killers operate. Who would ever dream that behind Driscoll’s soft, brown eyes there lurks a maniac intent on luring us into a theatrical sub-basement where we will confront the most grotesque aspects of our mortality? And who could imagine we would be eager to help her?
For the audience in “Space” are not passive victims. Oh, no. Audience participation is key to this work, which can only imperfectly be described as a solo. Gently, Driscoll asks viewers to help her, winning our trust, softening us up, and gradually eroding the “fourth wall.” Soon audience members are hanging onto ropes and lowering suspended weights; tearing off strips of masking tape; holding Driscoll’s hand; and passing around a block of clay. Would these viewers mind climbing into the trunk of her car? Why, not at all!
Meanwhile Driscoll insinuates herself among us, her behavior matter-of-fact yet increasingly strange. Standing beneath hanging microphones, she makes animal noises, howling and creating a feedback loop that will echo mournfully outside the illuminated area where we sit. Something inhuman, out there in the darkness, is warning us of our fate. Driscoll sucks on a lemon — we can almost taste the sourness — and she adopts stagy poses, notably a kneeling posture with arms raised apprehensively. As the piece progresses, her facial expressions morph from surprise to anger and pain. The strips of tape become red claws, like fingernail extensions; and she takes apart the block of clay to hurl lumps of it at the floor, soiling the pristine space.
So far this is all academic — a dry, if increasingly messy study in audience-performer relations. Then, suddenly, it’s time for the floorshow. Doing her own version of “The Dying Swan,” Driscoll gradually surrenders to gravity, legs twisting beneath her, until she’s almost lying flat with only her head and feet still offering resistance. Turning over, she becomes an accident victim, while we hear a frantic rattling in the background.
Now we must face the ghoulish dénouement, in which Driscoll, a latter-day Kevorkian, introduces us to the facts of life, or rather, death. Do you want to take this final journey with her? No? Too bad! You’ve already given your consent, just by being born.
Standing by a pair of tables, Driscoll shows us various objects that, she claims, belong to us, but that we will no longer need. “These are your glasses,” she says. “This is your bookmark.” “These are the pills you used to take for anxiety.” Hang on, we might still need those pills as we listen to Driscoll describe the gradual loss of bodily functions, the liquefaction of our internal organs, and the process that will turn us one day into meat for flies.
Driscoll’s face is like a weeping angel’s as she holds out lumps of stuff that crumble and ooze through her fingers. “This is your liver,” she says.
All right. We all know this story doesn’t end well, for anyone, and maybe we should be reminded now and then. It never hurts to get a check-up! Or try a tonic, preferably with gin. But what about that audience participation? Do we really have to collaborate in our own undoing?
Over the years, various choreographers have made the point that Americans’ habitual passivity is dangerous. I remember with fondness John Jasperse’s 2005 piece “Prone,” in which audience members lay on air mattresses and were strictly warned not to budge. The background to such works is the world outside the theater, where sociopathic politicians and lying media personalities scheme tirelessly to promote war, misery and environmental devastation.
Yet remaining passive isn’t the only way we place ourselves in danger. Driscoll may be warning us that we are too gullible. As a society, we are too ready to obey self-proclaimed authority figures, and too easily swayed by air-brushed liars who appear attractive and soft-spoken. We’re so accustomed to focus on our own pleasure that we regard the news as infotainment, when in reality our trusted leaders are taking us down the path to an unsavory end.
Passivity won’t save us. But being able to say, “Hell, no, I won’t participate” will be required, too.
Faye Driscoll’s “Thank You for Coming: Space” will be performed April 12 at 7:30 p.m.; April 13 at 8 p.m.; and April 14 at 3 p.m. at Montclair State University’s Kasser Theater. Visit peakperfs.org.