Jane Comfort’s An American Rendition, which recently closed at the end of September, is the latest work in an oeuvre that continually reaches beyond what most other New York choreographers are producing. Comfort has never shied from topical subject matter, complex collaborations, or pushing her performers past what is normally demanded of them. This new work manages to segue scenes of torture with those of reality TV shows, and succeeds in spades.
The core story centers on the interrogation of an American played by Sean Donovan. It begins as routine questioning of Donovan after he passes through the inanities of airport security, driven by whimsical directives that change with the wind. The questioning session grows more intense, more like what you’d imagine early-stage Guantanamo Bay is like, with the same oversight of basic human rights and answers ignored simply because they aren’t the ones desired.
Actual tactics of interrogation are read aloud by believably bureaucratic Peter Sciscioli, bullet points that go from A to W and venture from practical to psychologically black. Donovan inhabits his character so fully as to make him entirely plausible. He is eventually stripped to his briefs, and his lean frame and full beard add to the wracked desperation of his role. His wife is portrayed by the talented Jessica Anthony, who segues seamlessly from aggrieved spouse into American Idol contestant singing “I Will Survive” at the top of her lungs.
Comfort pushes scenes just far enough to hug the line between recognition and nervousness. That goes for the reality TV segments as well. The cast puts on ridiculous garments made of household objects that ring familiar with viewers of Project Runway’s car or apartment pillaging episodes. Flip to a model competition, where the challenge is to make the most convincing dead portrait. One is ousted because she looks too vibrant. Sick but strangely believable, if you flip through a current fashion mag full of sallow rag doll models with concave posture.
Ellen Smith is spot-on as the TV host, her British accent dignifying even the most brutal criticism. It’s also her same deadpan delivery of news that could be either fatal or winning, plus her world-weary demeanor and her artificial affection for the contestants. She makes Sciscioli sing an encore of “I Feel Good” because it was so bad the first time, sending him offstage with, “Never do that again in public.”
Some scenes particularly haunt: Donovan being ruthlessly tortured in clever choreography involving chairs and their removal; the dancers rolling on the floor, thrashing in rhythm; the performers putting on hoods that could pass as high fashion or terrorist garb (Liz Prince designed the costumes). Sciscioli ends as he began, changing channels on an invisible remote, flipping from terror to escapism in a breath.
Rounding out the superb cast are Leslie Cuyjet, Olase Feeman, and Lisa Niedermeyer. Steve Miller’s photographic projections, put together by Jung-eun Kim, hover like phantasms, and Joan La Barbara wrote the score which managed to create a subtle sonic atmosphere. Mark your calendar next time Comfort has a New York engagement, particularly if it’s An American Rendition.