Martha Clarke's "The Garden of Earthly Delights" is a seminal work of theater, one that extends the possibilities of forms of performance. As in other of her recent works, Clarke blurs the lines between dance, mime and drama in using the body to create resonant images of breathtaking beauty and horrific grotesquerie.
A 1984-85 work, "Garden" was performed this past weekend at Goucher College as part of Baltimore's Theatre of Nations festival. A theatrical exegesis of Hieronymus Bosch's triptych, the hour-long work gets to the very core of existence, creating images that suggest both the sublimity and the hellishness that human experience encompasses.
Clarke's lineage as a member of Pilobolus and a founder of Crowsnest is evident here, both in the way she distorts bodies and links them together and in the way these assemblages "become" something else, either representationally or metaphorically. In Pilobolus this technique often seems merely clever, but in Clarke's newer work (including the acclaimed "Vienna: Lusthaus") it serves to create images that themselves create narrative or psychological meaning. In "Garden," these images are the equivalent of Bosch's teeming bestiary.
Created in collaboration with its original performers, Clarke's work is divided into four sections: "Eden," "The Garden," "The Seven Sins" and "Hell." The world before man's fall from grace is depicted in slow motion as a delight in animate existence. The duet for Adam (Felix Blaska) and Eve (Margie Gillis) is at once the most sensuous and the most innocent imaginable, underscored by the presence of two cupids hovering overhead.
In contrast, the world after expulsion from the Garden is thoroughly depraved. Movement now takes place in real time. Maneuverings over a sack of potatoes engender the invention of theft, rape and murder. Hell is portrayed as discordant sound, as a Dies Irae on chimes is interrupted by men wielding hammers. A cellist playing the Eden theme is tormented by Clarke as an evil gremlin who saws on his instrument to produce a raucous screech; in turn, she is impaled on the cello's point. Suspended from wires and spinning as though trapped in inexorable vortexes, the performers fly over the audience, their toes just grazing our heads.
The performances by Blaska, Clarke, Gillis, Mary Ann Kellogg, John Parks, Bill Ruyle, Steven Silverstein and Tim Wengerd were superb. Clarke was blessed in her collaborators: Paul Gallo's lighting, Foy's flying apparatus and Jane Greenwood's costumes were part of the very fabric of the atmospheric production. Richard Peaslee's score functioned as a text, directing action and emotional response.