Sarah Grimke works in performance of all types in the Philadelphia region. They’ve been on stage, backstage, and in the office for years now.
I went to see Wroughtland VERY EXCITED. The festival is a wonderful but very high anxiety time for me. I’m always working on too many projects at too many levels. Right before the festival, I am always convinced I need to quit working in live performance, and right after I am always sure there is nothing else I could love so much. One of my coping mechanisms is seeing a few things in the festival that people recommend to me and that will inspire wonder. Gunnar Montana’s Wroughtland came heavily recommended and his show from last festival, Purgatory, was one I was incredibly sad to miss. I haven’t heard the end of it from people who saw it. I was determined this year.
At first impressions, I was not let down. Gunnar’s team took a familiar venue, The Latvian Society, and made it mysterious. He had us enter in a somewhat roundabout manner around the back and through the bar and back up the stairs, stairs that were transformed with falling pieces of paper and other items that slowly immersed you in a different world. Eventually, you walked through a backless armoire into the space (this might be my favorite entrance to a show ever). BAM! The entire space had been reinvented. Every inch of wall and ceiling was covered in whimsical furniture or fake flora. Ivy with long shiny thorns protruding from it covered most of the surfaces. Lanterns hung from the ceiling, a decrepit couch sat against the raised stage. I logically knew this, but I still searched the program for a set designer, even though I knew Gunnar was the production designer and choreographer and director. Fairly certain he doesn’t sleep.
I knew that the production was inspired by a twisted take on fairy tales, and it was. The evening progressed as a string of individual dances, some solo, some not. Each individual dance had a vague or very pointed reference to a fairy tale that we know of through Disney. One dance in particular straight-up used a song from a mouse-movie. Others were more costume references or movement references, a couple I was unsure what story they were talking about. The dancing was beautiful. The set surprised me over and over again with inspired choices. Seemingly innocuous set pieces opened up or disappeared or allowed someone to be swallowed up. Props appeared out of nowhere. Giant things came through doors I would have sworn wouldn’t fit them. It was, in fact, magical.
Unfortunately, I increasingly felt the magic wear off as the piece continued. At first it was small things that I noticed. My initial questions were raised about the equality of the characters created in the piece. It was a very VERY sexual piece. I actually quite enjoyed the strip tease performed by Little Red Riding Hood for a Big Bad Wolf statue, but then it seemed to increasingly be that the women were nude or semi-nude, sexual without much depth. The 2 men in the company were sexual as well, but mostly enjoyed a story line and it was ultimately revealed that one of them was the protagonist of the piece, the owner of the book of fairy tales, and the other was his lover. In another piece Gunnar, himself, dresses in drag and reveals himself as the owner of the Cinderella-shoe that the female dancers, dressed as disney-princesses, did not fit into. He performs to Gin Wigmore’s Black Sheep (amazing song choice), while a wall ultimately lifts up to reveal a message that says “Not your fucking princess.” Perhaps it was unconscious, but by saying that the women on stage did not qualify for that message while Gunnar did, was hard to watch. Additionally, there was a very disturbing piece that was in reference to Beauty and the Beast. Beauty cleaned and made dinner for her Beast with the aid of tap-dancing rabbits. Beast became increasingly abusive throughout the piece. More than once it seemed as if Beauty would leave, but she could not bring herself to do so. The violence escalated and escalated and ultimately, resulted in her being stripped in front of the audience while she stared mournfully out. The last image of her that you received was very clearly a foreshadowing of the rape that was about to happen. Then BOOP- Back to happy fun time dancing. I thought maybe I was the only one who spent the rest of the piece with my heart pounding and eyeing the exits, wondering how I was supposed to keep sitting in that room enjoying a piece of art. So, Kudos I guess, to Gunnar and his company for making something so believable and present that I almost threw up in my chair. At this point I reiterate: Please don’t casually drop in domestic violence and rape as entertainment. If you put those images out there as a form of entertainment without any context or purpose around it, you are devaluing the experiences of survivors in the room and normalizing the behavior. You are taking an experience that statistically speaking multiple women in your audience have lived through and relegating it to just as entertaining as tap dancing rabbits. Was the purpose to show that happily ever after isn’t so happy? We know. Was it to bring attention to the horrendous culture of domestic violence and rape in our culture? Show me how.
I even gaslit myself into thinking it was maybe just my experience, but I asked around to those I knew who saw it, and it seemed to be a common, though definitely not universal, feeling. Ultimately, it just seemed thoughtless of the creators to throw in such a heavy concept and not follow through with it.
This piece also perpetuated one particular kind of beauty, both male and female. All white. I would ask Gunnar in the future to use his brilliant aesthetic eye to expand his company’s definition of beauty to include people of color. Especially, in a piece about fractured fairy tales. I felt that was a missed opportunity to right a wrong our society and the mouse have perpetuated.
I just felt sort of let down. What started as a magical adventure turned into a picture of the world I’m all too familiar with. White men on top, white women just under, and no representation outside of that at all. If you are going to show me an alternate reality, please follow through.