The Black Tower

Local Arts Reviews


The Black Tower: Timeless Struggles

The Yard at the Vortex, through April 26

Running Time: of your own choosing

The gods of Olympus -- the phrase itself suggests beings on high, and it's from this elevated vantage points that these supernatural figures peer down at us lesser creatures in our never-ending struggles with each other. And yet, here are six of them, deities straight from Greek mythology, down from the mountain, as it were, on our level, where we are the ones doing the peering, free to view them at our leisure as they engage in their own struggles with each other.

In The Black Tower, the experimental performance company ethos inverts the natural order of Greek myth, setting gods on the earth, while above them, in a perch like the crow's nest of a ship, the traditionally earthbound Minotaur -- that lowly creature of Crete, part human, part beast -- gloats at his betters. As with last year's ethos production Hyper Zoo, this is an environmental performance piece, a theatrical museum through which audiences are invited to move and examine the living dioramas containing figures from other times and places. In Hyper Zoo, which was staged in a hangar at the old Robert Mueller Airport, these figures were drawn from a broad range of history and myth; The Black Tower narrows its focus to Greek gods, specifically, three pairs whose characters or attributes may be considered as complementary or in opposition to each other: Zeus and Athena, Ares and Aphrodite, Apollo and Dionysos.

Each couple inhabits its own space set around the base of the titular tower. Zeus and Athena share a stylized dining room in the "Feast of a Divine Eye." Aphrodite and Ares frolic in the nude in a sandpit laced with ropes and chains, aptly titled the "Web of Muscle." Apollo and Dionysos occupy a doctor's examining room with sinister-looking medical implements, the curiously titled "Surgery of Ecstasy." The triangular arrangement and particular gods represented suggest a correspondence to the human attributes of mind, body, and spirit. With each area containing a female and a male, the fundamental duality of our race, they can be seen as showing the twofold natures in these divisions of ourselves, at times complementary, at times contending for control.

As you watch the individual scenes, the influence of the characters upon each other appear to advance and recede, like the ebb and flow of a tide. Observed long enough -- and it takes some time, as nothing is hurried in The Black Tower -- this languid push-and-pull develops into a dance of opposing forces. And in some ways, the piece belongs more to dance than theatre. It isn't simply the absence of words; it is the care and fluidity of the performers' movements, the ways in which their bodies in motion reveal to us their characters' natures and intent.

How long you stay is up to you. You may feel you have absorbed all that you need to in 10 minutes, or you may linger for the full two hours that the installation is open on any given night. Naturally, the longer you stay, the more you will see: the Minotaur, her dark visage framed by gleaming golden horns, grinning and barking in some guttural tongue and, like a mad puppeteer, manipulating the wires that run from her perch to the ground; Theseus, that bold warrior who entered the Labyrinth and slew the Minotaur, here in military dress that calls to mind a Nazi SS officer (or maybe just a museum guard with delusions of grandeur) patrolling the exhibits, taunting and teasing the gods, even pumping one full of bullets if the mood strikes him (but the victim is a god; he gets better); the Pythia, that Delphic oracle, slowly circling the scenes; the Bitter Archaeologist, a vaguely Victorian-looking gent of sour face, fluttering about the fringes of the scenes, seeking something, yearning after it, but never finding it; the more details you notice in the settings by Ann Marie Gordon and the sensuous costumes by Kari Perkins. The longer you steep in the almost physically forceful illumination of Jason Amato and the haunting soundtrack of Chad Salvata, the more the atmosphere works upon you.

The Black Tower may not appear as epic in scale as Hyper Zoo, but the smaller installation is in a way actually greater in scope than its predecessor in that spectacularly cavernous hangar. The open-air setting allows the setting to rise up into the night sky, that home to all those constellations featuring figures of Greek legend and myth. It is no less a part of the piece than the design work or direction of Bonnie Cullum or the performances of Wendy Goodwin, Joe McDonald, Todd Essary, Eryn Gettys, Stewart Johnson, Juliana Gilchrist, Jo Beth Henderson, Matthew Patterson, and Content Love Knowles. Under the pull of that sky, that same heavenly vault that arched above the ancient Greeks and every race on this planet, we can feel the timelessness of the struggles represented before us and a connection to all who were and are and will be, to tide and time and life.

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The Black Tower, Joe McDonald, Wendy Goodwin, Todd Essary, Eryn Gettys, Stewart Johnson, Juliana Gilchrist, Jo Beth Henderson, Matthew Patterson, Content Love Knowles, Ethos, Jason Amato, Ann Marie Gordon, Kari Perkins, Chad Salvata, Bonnie Cullum, VORTEX Repertory Company, Hyper Zoo

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