Review: Wet zones, plastic diapers and nudity in unforgettable Austin theater performance
Sex, dreams and bruised identities permeated “Rub a Duck,” a water-infused show presented by Frank Wo/Men Collective at Blue Genie Art Industries.
Long sheets of translucent plastic defined three sides of the performance zone inside the tall industrial space. More plastic stretched over the floor, and for good reason, because the place got very wet during the show, as did some of the forewarned audience members.
Six performers, presented impersonally as numbered Participants, wore thigh-high waders, not unlike those used for fly-fishing, light halter-tops, and what looked like bright yellow plastic diapers. Three other performers, identified as the Chorus, wore black attire, ominously in one case, since he looked like nothing so much as a medieval executioner.
One more performer, Billie Secular as the Distinguished Imposer, acted as a sort of ringmistress/dominatrix — and embodied the part with relish.
At first, the Participants appeared to compete at absurd tasks, almost as if in a reality-show contest, while they were subject to sprays of water and bouts with water-related objects.
During the second act, the random-sounding speeches made it clearer that the Participants were gathered at a place called Transformation House, where months of dream analysis led to increasingly transformational experiences. The Artaudian tasks became more coercive, the nudity less incidental, and therefore less jolly for the audience, almost to the point of stylized water torture.
Since 13 artists collaborated on this bold project, their collective ideas about the public and private aspects of personality and sex were understandably all over the map. But they culminated brilliantly during one scene as Kelsey Oliver and Erica Saucedo confronted each other as haltered, squawking Id-creatures in what appeared to be a mating dance to the death. Like something out of “Freaks.”
As interdisciplinary performance art, “Rub a Duck” leaned closest to dance, miraculously enhanced by designers Chris Conard, Walter Nichols, Aaron Flynn and artistic director Oliver.
Waiting for the performance to begin, by choice in the designated “dry zone,” I remarked to my guest that the standing-room-only crowd closely resembled in attire, manner and attitude the audiences in the late 1980s and into the 1990s for Vortex Repertory Theatre, Salvage Vanguard Theater, the Rude Mechs and, especially, Physical Plant Theater, along with various dance companies that had branched into performance art, and there were so many back then.
At once, I realized that these Wo/Men fans were young enough to be that first audience’s biological children! And the grandchildren of predecessors such as still-at-it Austinites like Deborah Hay. A wonderful thought.
Comparisons to earlier work is not meant to detract from the essential originality of “Rub a Duck,” which boasted far higher production values than any of the no-budget performance transgressions from 30 years ago. It is useful, however, to put these compelling performances — and that, in the end, is what performance art is ultimately about, performance in the present tense, not ideas — into context.
For instance, a startling sequence in “Rub a Duck” came when insolent Secular and fearless Oliver performed a bodily function with a duck-billed speculum and a common kitchen implement that brought back memories of Annie Sprinkle’s then-controversial speculum act at the Vortex in the ‘90s.
Nobody who saw Sprinkle’s show will forget it. And nobody will forget “Rub a Duck.” Wo/Men has so far — in its short history — gone from project to collaborative project without repeating itself, but I would not be surprised if audiences demanded a revival of this deliriously trippy show at some point in the future.
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Frank Wo/Men Collective
To seem more about the collective's collaborations and past performances, go to frankwomencollective.com.