A Woman’s Place, Cooperative Performance Milwaukee’s latest original performance, takes place in an abstract mental institution, where women are kept under such dubious medical authority as existed in the mid 1800s, for disorders like depression, nymphomania, and using foul language. Co-director Kelly Coffey was moved to create the piece after reading admission records from the Mendota Mental Asylum, Wisconsin’s first hospital for the insane. Coffey’s program notes state that “While women have made increasing strides towards independence and equality, our society still perpetuates an ingrained patriarchal mentality”
The performance is beautifully executed, with a poetic text and an incredibly powerful score created for the show by Cellist Janet Schiff (playing a hundred year old instrument) and Percussionist Victor DeLorenzo (whom you might remember from the successful Milwaukee band the Violent Femmes). Three “Aerialists” dangle from the ceiling in fabric slings that they control through skillful deployment of weight and momentum, morphing into cocoons, trapezes, and starfish-like forms that whirl hypnotically, energizing the space of the Danceworks studio. The room is also hung with fabric strips that suggest a forest, isolating institutional cells, or the limiting norms of a patriarchal society. Marissa Clayton’s choreography ranges from contemplative to energetic, embellishing the narrative with a wide spectrum of spatial and emotional tones. With the help of skilled direction by Coffey and co-director Don Russell, this fifty-minute piece doesn’t feel too long—a welcome contrast with many long-form dances.
The show’s finger-painted treatment of mental illness reflects nineteenth century science, conflating emotional issues and socially difficult behavior with actual mental illness; it’s clear that most, if not all of these women don’t belong there. As the head doctor, the impressively bearded Josh Perkins condenses every stereotype of the arrogant male (except brutality; violence is only implied by the presence of Eric Scherrer as an sinister orderly, stalking the floor in knee-high boots). The doctor intones pompously about females’ smaller brain size, emotional frailty and physical weakness. “Occasionally there appears a woman of superior abilities,” he pontificates, “but they are anomalies and can therefore be ignored.” He also makes inappropriate advances to his charges, occasionally stroking them as if they were his personal pets.
Speaking in fragments of poetry, five dancers deliver committed, authentic performances as the inmates, refreshingly free of clichés about “acting crazy.” Each woman has her own finely-rendered portrait: Kathryn Cesarz is almost comic in her Tourettes-like profanity, her verbal explosions seem perfectly timed to puncture the doctor’s monstrous ego. Hannah Klapperich-Mueller gives a moving interpretation of a gentle person devastated by the loss of her children and by the unloving husband who had her committed. As “the nymphomaniac,” Hayley Cotton shows more intelligence and self-possession than mania. When two of the patients share an intimate moment, the strength of their bond seems to summon the Shaman (Sarah Mellstrom, in a fabulous biomorphic-patterned leotard designed by Margaret Schires), who comes down from her perch and initiates a ceremony of empowerment. Exhorted by the spirits of “Root” and “Heart,” the patients defy the doctor’s authority. Gradually he loses his veneer: losing pieces of clothing here and there, he becomes flustered and defensive. In the show’s final image, he is reduced to a fetal curl on the floor, and the women bind him with strips of cloth until he’s artfully subdued: powerful no more.
The piece doesn’t try to contextualize its stories in the history of Civil War era Wisconsin, nor does it explore the nuances of gender relations in the twenty-first century. Y chromosome-bearers in the audience might take exception to the unsubtle representation of their gender (as the joke goes, “90 percent of men make the rest of us look bad”). But this show is self-evidently for and about women; if I had to deal with some of the guys out there as a woman, I might find it cathartic, too. Subtlety isn’t the point: by summoning their oppressor and ritualizing his subjection, they perform a different world into being.
It’s very much like a modern Noh play: the Noh theater of Japan’s Muromachi period also combined dance, music and poetry to create incredibly sophisticated performance, emphasizing atmosphere and image rather than story. Interestingly, one kind of Noh, the “ghost plays,” depict a traveler encountering a spirit trapped in some remote spot by a terrible injustice. In the course of the drama—usually by the intercession of a Buddhist monk—the spirit is liberated. Just so, A Woman’s Place revisits a haunted spot, seeking to exorcise the evils of the past that linger in the present.
Kelley quotes Bell Hooks: “A genuine feminist politics always brings us from bondage to freedom.” But A Woman’s Place stops short of that high aspiration. What leap of imagination would it take not simply to bind the patriarch— but to free him?
Cooperative Performance Milwaukee presents
A Woman’s Place
Created by Kelley Coffey
Saturday, February 20 5:30pm, 8pm
Sunday, February 21 2:30pm
1661 N Water St.