When a spotlight shone down on the audience, illuminating an unsuspecting woman sitting in front of me, I knew Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg’s Porno Death Cult was on to something. I wasn’t sure what, quite yet, but the involuntary, visceral fear of unsolicited audience participation had my attention. After a slightly saturated week or so of dance events and despite Friedenberg’s notoriety, I was totally uninitiated and a bit unprepared for the next sixty minutes. Each shaft of light on an unwitting audience member was an awkward public annunciation (you know, the Renaissance painting scene where the Virgin Mary is impregnated by a beam of light) ushering in an extended, multi-sensory investigation into the absurdity and intricacies at the intersection of faith and the body.
Porno Death Cult is Tara Cheyenne Performance’s (TCP) (Friedenberg’s eponymous company) fifth full-length work. In an age when research-oriented, formalist movement experimentation is de rigueur in contemporary dance, TCP’s commitment to cross-disciplinary, character-driven performance via narrative and persona is refreshing. In some circles “theatre” remains a dirty word (I think this is a hangover from 1980s performance self-identifying as “not theatre”), but TCP takes it on, melding synergistically and seamlessly with dance. That said, I understood Porno Death Cult as a dance work – Friedenberg’s incredible physicality and the committed integration of the body into all aspects of the piece led me to read it intuitively as dance. Not that this reading is necessarily correct, I am not particularly interested in asserting what’s “not dance” and “not theatre.”
In the opening solo (it’s a one-woman show, so everything is solo) Friedenberg moves, head bowed, hair a closed curtain around her face in a state of slow, presumably religious, ecstasy, meandering downstage to the sounds of feet on gravel (no doubt the sound of pilgrimage). Praying hands finally part her hair and we see her face and hear her voice. We meet Maureen, a painfully awkward but ultimately well-meaning (if insane) religious extremist. Here, it is not that the movement and the speaking, the dance and the theatre, work well together – in Porno Death Cult the two disciplines actually require each other to adequately express the agony, ecstasy and absurdity of modern faith.
Similarly essential is the work of two visual artists, Alice Mansell and Mickey Meads, who have constructed a looming altar-like installation placed upstage and bisected by a red carpet that acts intermittently as a church-like runway for Friedenberg. Constructed out of numerous images of what could perhaps best be described as “objects of obsession” (famous works of art, fancy shoes, trees, etc.), it is caught in that roving beam of light, illuminating one image at a time throughout the performance. The altar is an important piece of scenography, but it is not simply a prop, it is given the opportunity to stand alone and coexist with the performance as a work in itself. It is encouraging to see visual artists working with performing artists to produce something that goes beyond “visuals.”
Porno Death Cult seems to proceed at a breakneck speed, yet it doesn’t feel rushed. The writing and pacing are remarkable, structured by a series of characters inhabited by Friedenberg: the aforementioned psycho church lady Maureen, an evangelical preacher (who might also be God?) and an uncanny passive/aggressive yoga instructor. Maureen anchors the performance – her Irish lilt and lonesome fanaticism, sweetly, sickly, driving the performance forward. She transitions into the volatile, pacing evangelist, employing strangely familiar yet nonsensical biblical syntax. The yoga teacher’s serene condescension and impressive vinyasas take perfect aim at the secular capitalist model of faith through “lifestyle.” Juice cleanses, Mexican yoga retreats and breatharianism (for which followers restrict all but light) are filleted by Freidenberg’s sharp tongue and calculated movement, dissecting how we instrumentalize the body in trying to transcend the body. “I just feel … lighter,” a post-juice-cleanse cliché uttered by the pompous yogi, resonates on multiple levels, especially in Vancouver.
I have held off this far in mentioning the most marked characteristic of this work: it is really, really funny. But I find it nearly impossible to explain why or how something is funny. Believe me, Porno Death Cult is hilarious. Not in a calculated press release kind of employing humour as a strategy to blah blah … way, but in a rare manner that actually makes one laugh, out loud, repeatedly. Friedenberg’s remarkable faculty for humour is put to good and constant use because the heaviness of the big picture thematics – desperation, enlightenment, life/death, faith/faithlessness – demands levity to keep melodrama at bay.
Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg’s talent is immense. Talent feels like a cheap word today, but I am not sure what else to call it. What she possesses stretches beyond ability. A compelling mover and an equally convincing actor, she has created a work that is as funny as it is complex. At the end of Porno Death Cult, Friedenberg takes a seat in the audience as a final poignant gesture, implicating the audience in a kind of secular real-time worship. Parallels between visual art and religious faith emerge often – churches and museums bear a striking and undeniable similarity. Here, the proscenium stage and black box theatre stand up well to the analogy, and the audience has the opportunity to realize that we are probably not any less crazy than Friedenberg’s cast of characters (it was clear from the beginning that the audience wasn’t going to be let off the hook). With wild intangibles – talent, humour – at its core, as with many things faith-based, you kind of have to see Porno Death Cult to believe it.