Ordinary Lives Held Up Against Extraordinary

Posted: September 28, 1992

"The mystery . . . ," the actors chant during David Gordon's dance-play with music. "The mystery . . ."

The mystery, of course, is life and art, and Gordon has fashioned his choreographed study of those essentials by contrasting a biography of dada artist Marcel Duchamp with the lives of Sam and Rose, ordinary people now grown old and confronting the greatest mystery of all.

Just when Gordon's The Mysteries and What's So Funny? seems bent on grilling the elegant, offhand Duchamp about art, the work pulls the curtain back from another of life's truths. But that act on stage is art, isn't it? And so Duchamp, played with such calm and perfect timing by Gordon's wife, Valda Setterfield, thinks about why he stopped painting, and concludes, "I liked breathing more than painting."

The players move on a cartoon stage on which designer Red Grooms has created images from Duchamp's life and work. There is the staircase on which his famous nude descends (here, Duchamp descended it), and there is the urinal signed "R. Mutt." The backdrop is the Mona Lisa with a mustache and goatee, and actors hold a frame in front of a chair to raise the question "is it art?" A chessboard swirls across the stage. When Sam and Rose explain their lives, the dancer-actors circle them with cartoons proclaiming "Spring" and ''Winter," and a door, turning in its frame, opens and closes on moments in their lives.

Each member of this company of gifted performers played several roles. Lola Pashalinski and Jerry Matz are old Rose and Sam, married 50 years and puzzled about life's meaning. Norma Fire, the oldest daughter, a quizzer, a detective, asks Sam and Rose questions as if trying to find how the moments of a life can add up to such improbable numbers. Karen Graham and Scott Cohen, young Rose and Sam, explore the mysteries of love, of birth, of parenting, while another couple, Mr. and Mrs. Him, played by Bill Kux and Tisha Roth, devote their days to quarrels over the choice of cereal. But then they are driven to it by a pair of deities, Anger I and II, played by Scott Cunningham and Adina Porter. The stubby, elastic Alice Playten plays about 20 roles.

While Duchamp says he believes a painting, or any art, gets old and dies after a few years, his view of art parallels the lives of the players who enter and depart in such closely designed circles and patterns. Their lives are no more predictable than his definition of art.

Alan Johnson played the musical wallpaper composed by Philip GLass for this spirited and touching piece, which was seen over the weekend at the Zellerbach Theater.

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