By Leigh Witchel
Claire Porter and Sara Juli know the rules, well enough to dissect them. “The Lectern: rule by rule by rule,” presented as part of American Dance Festival’s season at New York Live Arts, was tightly paced yet loosely edited, roaming far and wide from fashion rules to school rules to rules in love. But not war. Even when wandering into rules in court and of death, the view stayed personal rather than cosmic. “The Lectern” never went dark.
The show started out with the most mundane of rules: the usual turn-off-your-cellphone announcement, but that morphed into an airline safety video, and a litany of other unsolicited advice.
Porter and Juli, both long-time performers who skillfully mix movement, theater and comedy, came out in simple black academic robes and red heels (of a sensible height) to make competing commencement addresses, carefully timed as to when and when not to step over the other person’s speech.
They both drifted over to a square on the stage floor outlined in (what else?) red tape. It caused them to become mute at crucial points in their advice-giving. Throughout the piece, if someone ended up in that spot, it was as if they had their mic cut. Like many other parameters in life, it was never fully explained – it was just another rule.
From graduation to the catwalk, the music shifted to a pulsing bass and Porter and Juli stripped off their robes to not-all-that-chic black and white outfits, spouting an inanity of fashion rules from sources as august as Diana Vreeland and Seneca the Younger. Occasionally getting stuck and snagged, they peeled off layer after layer. Porter signaled for the back traveler to part and revealed a long dining table with empty glasses and plates. Each woman sat at one end; Juli used her plate as a mirror, Porter used hers as a hat. She balanced a napkin on her head, then the plate, then a glass. Deadpan, she knocked all the silverware off the table.
It was hard to tell how much was scripted and how much was improvisation. If it was improv, the two were crackerjack at it – there wasn’t any fumbling. Porter changed from a gown to horseracing livery and careened through calling an imaginary race in which virtues and vices – Wretched Worry, Unintended Consequences and a host of others – competed. Juli returned to the lectern not to speak, but dance to Bal Musette music. Neither Porter nor Juli were all that interested in making a dance, for them movement was illustration. Yet the movement was integral to the work: Juli’s speeches wouldn’t have been the same without the little gesticulations and convulsions.
The two headed into a game of charades, both trying to guess ridiculously complex advice (“Take Melatonin!”) way beyond animal, vegetable or mineral and occasionally (“Driving two hours a week takes three years off your life.”) getting it.
Five young performers formed a Greek chorus that made scene and costume changes, as well as performing a vignette within the silent square of red tape and a final runway modeling. Porter and Juli changed back into their robes, only this time as judges lecturing imaginary defendants. They commanded us to All Rise! as they sunk below the lectern and the piece faded to black.
Given NYLA’s brief for work that challenges the status quo, it’s almost surprising how mild-mannered “The Lectern” was. It roamed all over the map of imperatives, and yet didn’t really question authority.
Still, there was no reason to fret. The piece was well done, clocked in at an hour and every joke landed. The best things about the work were the timing and chemistry of the two women. With the emphasis on good-natured comedy rather than subversion, Porter and Juli’s work is broadly appealing. Maybe they should be targeting Off-Broadway instead of art houses.
Copyright ©2017 by Leigh Witchel
“The Lectern: rule by rule by rule” – Claire Porter & Sara Juli
New York Live Arts, New York, NY
October 10, 2017
Cover: Claire Porter and Sara Juli in “The Lectern: rule by rule by rule.” Photo © Ben McKeown.
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