Founded in Boston in 1982 and based in western Massachusetts since 1995, Double Edge Theatre creates original theatrical performances through long-term collaborative work. The company’s relentless, the first part of a projected cycle called The Garden of Intimacy and Desire, shows the kind of power that can be attained only through this kind of rigorous and sustained approach. A brilliant and completely achieved performance, relentless exists on a plane of intelligence and imagination rare in theater.
The show integrates dance, music, and text in a constant flow of vivid movement and dramatic situations. No individual episode lets itself be pinned down to a literal meaning, and no continuous narrative can be discerned. Although her scenario uses several pre-existing texts, including Jacobo Timerman’s Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number and works by Rainer Maria Rilke and Federico García Lorca, director Stacy Klein creates a context in which the spoken word suggests but does not impose meaning and in which emotions and sensory experience are not subordinate to language. Speech functions as a pointer indicating where meaning might be found, or created; the action of relentless takes place elsewhere.
At several points in the performance, we hear a woman’s recorded voice talking matter-of-factly about an incomprehensible disaster ( " I had never felt so lonely and so sad in my entire life. . . . It was time to bring peace of mind to everyone, including myself. " ). It probably wouldn’t have occurred to me, if the director’s notes hadn’t cited the case as an impetus for relentless, that these words come from the confession of Susan Smith. (In case you weren’t following national news in the fall of 1994, Susan Smith was a white South Carolina woman who drowned her two young children in a lake. Before her guilt came to light, she claimed they had been kidnapped by a black man.) In any case, relentless isn’t about Susan Smith; it shows her as an extreme case of a certain kind of imprisonment, the play’s real subject, and uses her words to signify a general spiritual catastrophe that the on-stage rituals seek to explain or contradict.
Although the three performers (Carlos Uriona, Jennifer Johnson, and John Peitso) embody figures identified in the program notes as king, queen, and jester, their functions, natures, and modes of self-expression change so often that it becomes impossible to see them as characters in a conventional sense. They take on and discard several roles, representing, perhaps, three human archetypes at various stages of development. I suspect that Jungian thought lies somewhere behind relentless, but fortunately neither Jungianism nor any other philosophy or program overdetermines the play.
Never crude or tentative, the play’s transformations are subtle and often dazzlingly complex. They involve lighting changes, props, hand puppets, a brilliant use of Gene LaValley’s simple and beguiling set (which features a barn-like structure and a loft), and changes of expression and costume. Of the three actors, Johnson is called on to go through the largest number of on-stage transformations, in what I assume is a commentary on the roles women are required to play under patriarchy, and she carries them out deftly.
Among the many startling and beautiful moments, one of the most indelible is an erotic dance in which Johnson lies on a rolling bed while Peitso, lying on his back beneath it and using his hands and feet to propel himself, convulsively moves the bed in semicircles around the stage. In another extraordinary scene, Johnson spins around while whirling two flaming cubes attached by cords to her wrists and reciting, full-throatedly and with obvious effort, Rilke’s " The Departure of the Prodigal Son. " The pauses and breaths that indicate her physical strain become musical values, like the breath-like sound of the fire rushing through air, and the symbolism of Rilke’s poem recedes behind the poem’s concrete existence as rhythmic sound.
The show lasts about an hour, but it’s so exciting it feels like less and so dense it feels like more. Double Edge’s relentless is a significant, accomplished, unique work.