Dance Review: Joe Goode Performance Group in 'Wonderboy,' 'Maverick Strain'

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 4, 2009

Fred Astaire danced with a coat rack, Donald O'Connor with a dummy. But one of the most inventive solos with a prop in recent memory is in Joe Goode's "Wonderboy," where a gentle young man finds sweet sympathy with a puppet.

Or rather, it's the puppet who finds completion in the young man, for the gangly-limbed, tot-size puppet is the unlikely focus of this deeply felt work about finding one's place in an indifferent world. The San Francisco-based Joe Goode Performance Group brought it to the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center over the weekend, along with excerpts from Goode's "Maverick Strain."

Goode, creator of perceptive and often witty dance-theater works, has long taken as his subject extreme sensitivity -- how the displaced heart finds a home ("Hometown"), how ordinary moments offer spiritual revelation ("Grace"). "Wonderboy," which he crafted last year, is his most overt treatment of deep feeling yet.

With the help of puppeteer Basil Twist, who created the endearing wide-eyed youngster of the title, Goode conjures up the embodiment of total innocence and excruciating empathy -- a wonderboy who escapes his distracted, quarreling parents and ventures into the world, only to find that his superpowers of intuition are more hindrance than help.

Twist's puppet is a Westernized version of the Japanese puppet-theater tradition of bunraku. It is essentially an intricately articulated doll, manipulated by several of the dancers in full view of the audience -- one keeping it upright, two others moving its hands, etc.

The very idea of a puppet being able to hold the spotlight in a troupe of such excellent dancers as Goode's is bizarre. But then again it's no surprise, really: The little guy's expressive success springs from just another form of ensemble choreography for the dancers, who work in concert to give him ingeniously human qualities of movement.

It all comes together in the pas de deux -- in truth, a pas de everybody -- for the puppet, his handlers and his newfound love interest, in which the unlikely connection between two hearts is poignantly described.

The Goode dancers -- and they do dance, in the more conventional sense, too -- are at their effortless best throughout this work, bounding into one another's arms with cat-footed lightness, or sweeping across the stage with limbs fanning and cartwheeling through the air in images of unmistakable yearning.

Yet for all its theatrical richness, "Wonderboy" falls short of its promise. The central idea -- that it's tough to be sensitive -- is thin material for extended treatment and begins to feel like a whine. According to a program note, Goode has taken some of the words of playwright Sam Shepard, poet Thom Gunn and metaphysical philosopher Krishnamurti for his script. But where the wit and ringing concision of the spoken word is typically a high point of Goode's work, here the text dips into such banal waters as this: "Each moment is wonderful to see," enthuses one of the dancers at a microphone in the shadows, speaking for the puppet. "Wow, I'm full of wonder about this."

More satisfying were the scenes from "Maverick Strain" (1996), a deconstruction of Arthur Miller's screenplay for the Clark Gable-Marilyn Monroe film "The Misfits." Goode teases out the campiness, double-entendres and sexual tension in this end-of-an-era, cowboy-meets-a-stripper western -- all right, he doesn't just tease them out, he hauls them out, gives them a double dose of tongue-in-cheek irony and whips it all into a Las Vegas-style floor show.

It's fabulous fun, with the slightly rotund Goode in fringed rhinestone-cowboy gear, taking on the roles of both Gable's weather-beaten horse rustler and Montgomery Clift's rodeo rider. But the best parts were those for the women, Jessica Swanson and Patricia West, sour, calloused butchy broads who, in the kind of wry gender flip that Goode does best, showed who truly holds the ropes.

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