13th Floor Dance Theater founder Jenny McAllister creates a new dance-theater piece that adheres to the spirit of “Finnegans Wake” by retaining the music of Joyce’s language and “bits and pieces of his wordplay.”
In the rousing 19th-century music-hall song “Finnegan’s Wake,” Tim Finnegan, a hard-drinking hod carrier, fell off a ladder and died. As his corpse lay upon the bed during a raucous, drunken wake, a bottle of whiskey went flying; “the liquor scattered over Tim,” causing him to arise, with an indignant roar, from the dead.
The song inspired Irish writer James Joyce’s last and most mystifying novel, “Finnegans Wake,” first serialized in 1924 and published in its entirety in 1939. Its experimental, stream-of-consciousness style, its layers of puns and linguistic puzzles, the continually shifting identity of its characters (in just one instance of transmogrification, Anna Livia Plurabelle turns into a river), are thought by some scholars to be Joyce’s attempt to transcribe the dream state. (Others argue that no one ever dreamed like this.)
While many have found “Finnegans Wake” unreadable, it inspired intrepid 13th Floor Dance Theater founder Jenny McAllister to create a new dance-theater piece, “A Wake.” In it, McAllister adheres to the spirit of the book by retaining the music of Joyce’s language and, as she says, “bits and pieces of his wordplay.” She has integrated some of Joyce’s text in with her own writing; re-shaping a few of his famously convoluted characters (and borrowing a character from one of his earlier novels); re-setting the scenario to America; and updating it to the 1990s (with flashbacks to the 1980s). The resulting world premiere is a two-act ghost story in which a rambunctious family, portrayed by nine performers through dialogue and dance, re-unites for a funeral during which a long-held secret is ultimately revealed.
“This is not a literal interpretation of the book,” McAllister points out—as though such a thing were even possible. “I took themes I found thought-provoking and interesting—in the novel they convince Tim Finnegan to go back to being dead; he’d be better off—and tied those themes into a story of my own.” To simplify Joyce’s plot, and to focus on “love, death and the inescapability of the past,” she remixed not only the characters (whose names, in the book, tend to be changeable in any case) but also some of the events.
The basic action in McAllister’s “A Wake” (the title itself is a pun) takes place not at Finnegan’s wake but at Anna Livia’s, attended by the extended Finnegan family: Tim’s two brothers, the twins Shaun (Parker Murphy) and Kevin (Eric Garcia); their sister, Issy (Nicole Nastari); Tim himself (Zach Fisher), who is actually already long dead and creating havoc by wafting around as a trouble-making ghost that only some of the characters can see; a pair of hilariously gossipy relatives (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart and Blane Ashby, both flamboyant in cat’s eye glasses), who at times appear to be speaking nonsense—Joycean nonsense, that is, some of their text taken from the washerwomen who appear in the novel—but are in fact truth-tellers, like the fool in Shakespeare, says McAllister; their sullen Goth daughter, A (Kat Cole); and Kevin’s cigar-smoking wife, Molly (Rebecca Seigel), inspired by TV character Tony Soprano’s wife. The siblings’ childhood friend Leo Bloom, from “Ulysses” (Colin Epstein), is also present.
In recent years, the literary-minded McAllister, a dancer and choreographer in the Bay Area for two decades, has been honing the craft of dance theater, adapting the writings of Virginia Woolf (“Bloomsbury/It’s Not Real,” re-creating the real-life Bloomsbury Group writers) and, most recently, presenting “Being Raymond Chandler.” The considerable challenge of “Finnegans Wake” appealed to her; she’d first read it in her 20s, over several months and mostly aloud to herself to experience the sing-songy rhythm, the double-entendres and the complex wordplay, and was captivated. In preparation for “A Wake” she reread favorite chapters and sometimes opened the book randomly, testing out scenes in rehearsal. Once she’d settled on the characters, she and the dancers worked together to refine and define them, inventing tics and traits, posture, attitudes in varied circumstances, nuances of relationships. Adding her own writing to passages from the Joyce novel was an organic process that evolved from working with the dancers. “We experimented with text, we improvised characters, we set up scenes,” she says. “I often start with an idea of characters and put a bunch of people in a room and see what happens…. We started with text, then some dance, then back to text, all sort of woven together. As I’m watching it, I see in it shapes or arcs of movement, and whether it needs to go faster or slower or up or down …”
It was also a largely intuitive process to decide exactly when characters switch from movement to text, and vice versa. At what point are two characters no longer able to express complex emotions in mere words? When do they find themselves overcome by bodily urges—lust, or fury or ecstasy? At what moment ought a duet to end, and why? When is it believable for characters to dance and talk simultaneously? “Sometimes it works to go abruptly from movement to text,” McAllister explains. “Other times it needs flow or transition to closure. Sometimes it can seem jagged—why are they talking now? I’m constantly working on the transitions. When it doesn’t work, it’s really clunky. It takes a while to find a graceful transition.”
For “A Wake,” text and movement preceded musical choices. For example, McAllister tried out many different songs and musical selections for a first-act duet for Issy and Leo; the duet, which follows an awkward dialogue between them, is playful and sexy and funny and ends with a discussion of the famous, paradoxical Schrodinger’s cat experiment. She ultimately settled on “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by the Proclaimers. Among the other musical selections are a Billy Idol number for a duet between A and the seductive ghost, and a score by French film composer Alexandre Desplat for an unsettling brother/sister duet and for a fight trio in which Leo, Shaun and Kevin revisit old hostilities, sparring and tussling. In the opening scene, in which the mourners arrive in a ritualistic procession for the funeral, the music (by another French film composer, Bruno Coulais) is funereal and somber but the lyrics sound nonsensical, says McAllister.
A particularly elaborate set (designed by Delayne Medoff) parallels the fluidity of the story: a garden so overgrown that it creeps through the front door into the kitchen; a house so full of pots and pans and dead plants that it spills out into the yard—no clear division between indoors and out. It seems an apt metaphor for “A Wake,” with its mélange of snooping, quarreling, teasing, flirting, threatening and dissembling, and the tangle of memories and visions haunting the various characters.
McAllister says she finds herself increasingly drawn to this multidisciplinary genre, which demands of its performers both dramatic and dancing skills. Language and character and movement combining to express what words alone cannot: “That’s a great way to make things more magical,” she says.
October 16 → 19
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