Review: Barak Marshall at Jacob’s Pillow
Photograph by Gadi Dagon
A prominent presence looms throughout Barak Marshall’s hour-long dance-theater piece, MONGER, but never appears on stage. It’s the mistress of the characters we first see huddled in shabby black overcoats in the darkness, who cluster together in terror as her high heels click across the floor above. She rings a bell and the dancers hurriedly shed their coats, revealing dingy, disheveled clothes and the aprons that identify them as members of the servant class. One winces forward to answer the call: “Yes, Mrs. Margaret. Of course, Mrs. Margaret; it will never happen again.” But it’s too late; Mrs. Margaret is an unforgiving mistress, and the servant is coldly cast out—an event that happens repeatedly during the U.S. debut of this piece that probes the dynamics of the Upstairs/Downstairs relationship from the point of view of those who serve demanding masters.
The dance unfolds in a series of vignettes, many filled with black humor, as in a duet for two men who create and interact with a facsimile of their mistress. Seated next to each other, each dons one of her imposing red pumps on their adjacent feet, and slips their adjacent arms through her black cocktail dress, creating a puppet that they top off by alternately holding and manipulating a pillbox hat. Their imagined mistress flirts with then paws them – advances that the men shun. It’s an extremely clever set piece of projected fantasies and power reversal.
In another striking sequence of derision toward the master class, seven dancers in black wigs and long, Victorian–style black dresses, seated in a row, present caricatures of the bad behavior they glimpse upstairs. Lit starkly from above, they primp, pose, rock, and jostle each other, erupting into disputes of shouting and spitting; the scene quickly shifts to two carrying on even more vociferously, spot-lit from the floor in front of them. They embody a Punch & Judy show, but the elongated shadows they cast on the back wall of the stage suggest a Balinese puppet show. Their mockery discovered—the unseen mistress displeased—the two maids are instantaneously stripped bare but for skin-toned bra and panties and dragged off.
The audience has been told – on the Pillow website, in the program notes, and during the pre-performance talk– that Monger takes its inspiration from Robert Altman’s film Gosford Park and Jean Genet’s play The Maids, both of which mine the master/servant relationship. Other references recall Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, referring to both Mrs. Margaret’s incessant summoning and dismissing of maids with the ring of her bell and the ominous chimes that recur in the piece. A recent viewing of The Whipping Man at Barrington Stage Company also brings to mind the biblical prohibition on Jews having other Jews as slaves – surely relevant to this piece from Israel, reinforced by the score’s inclusion of decades-old radio commercials for Hebrew National meats, gefilte fish, and Manischewitz matzoh. The complicity of prisoners in World War II prison camps also comes to mind as fellow servants don’t hesitate to punish and cast out offending maids and bring in potential replacements who are appraised like livestock. This complicity is also suggested in the piece’s most balletic duet with intentionally stunted partnering – every time the woman leaps into the man’s arms, he impedes her, rather than lifting her to greater heights.
The light is low throughout the piece, which unfolds largely in dank darkness, accented by occasional sound effects of leaky faucets and creaky hinges worked into a varied score that includes scratchy classical recordings, Tommy Dorsey, Balkan Beat Box, and contributions from Marshall’s mother, Margalit Oved, always punctuated by Mrs. Margaret’s persistent bell. Late in the work, the dancers emerge in full light when, it seems the servants revolt; a man talks back to Mrs. Margaret and admits various outrageous infractions before joining the ensemble in a grounded, rhythmic sequence of strenuous, sharp, stop-and-start choreography, that earlier marked the casting out of yet another maid. In this instance the sequence is transformed from lament to triumph, performed to upbeat music under bright lights. But in the end, it’s only a fantasy; exhausted from their bout of repressive sublimation, the dancers resignedly don their dusty black overcoats of servitude and shuffle off the stage.
Barak Marshall’s Monger runs through Sunday at Jacob’s Pillow in the Ted Shawn Theatre