The Yellow Wallpaper
“My Turkey Sandwich” is not a standard name for a dance company, but it sure caught my attention when I first saw the posters for their most recent show, “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The company, founded by Aaron Wood and Sarah Donohue, had produced a number of light hearted shows to match their light hearted name before delving into the more serious subject matter found in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper."
Gilman’s story is of a woman in the late 1800’s who was diagnosed with hysteria and forced to adhere to the standard treatment for hysteria at the time, bed rest. As the woman is confined to her room she becomes fascinated with the yellow wallpaper and slowly looses her mind as she analyzes the intricate design for weeks on end.
I was prepared for a bizarre performance when I went to see the Saturday matinee of “The Yellow Wallpaper” on February 4th. Apart from the associated story, Rose Wagner’s Black Box Theater is often host to distinctive shows and interesting stage designs. The curtains opened to a set with windows hanging in two different spots, a bed in one corner of the floor, and three white screens along the peripheral of the stage. The wallpaper slowly appeared on the screens while the four dancers, Karin Fenn, Natosha Washington, Corinne Penka, and Laura Blakely, waited in silence along with the narrator Gabrielle Gaston.
Once the wallpaper was filled in, Gabrielle began to recite lines from the beginning of the short story. Through repeating the same lines over and over and talking in frantic tones, I was already plunged into the world of this crazy woman, but the dancing to come intensified that feeling much more. Corrine, Natosha, and Karin, all portraying aspects of the hysterical woman, are extremely distinct dancers due to their different body shapes and style of dancing but were united through their character. While the movement was fairly simple, the acting of these three women brought even the placement of books into a circle an extremely intense action. The obsessive compulsiveness portrayed through arranging books perfectly in a circle showed the instability of their mind rather than simply saying it.
The forth dancer, Laura Blakely, played the husband, John. She was extremely strong and attempted to control the three other women by holding their hands still as they traced lines in mid air, showing them where to look outside the window, and keeping them from vibrating and moving too much in bed. Her piece, called John, was danced on the bed, and while she remained strong throughout the falling and bouncing on the mattress, she was not too stiff to move gracefully as well.
As I sat and watched this performance, I felt the intensity of a woman going mad. The expressions of the dancers ranged from blank indifference to sad confusion to painful realization, with the dancer’s eyes telling most of the story. Words running across the three screens made me feel somewhat dizzy as I tried to follow them, which increased my feeling hysteria. Recurring shaking, body shapes framed in a white cloth, and repeating words such as “peculiarity” was both creepy and effective. By the end of the show I knew what it was like to loose ones mind.
While this was not a typical dance performance, it was fascinating in it’s combination of acting, dancing, and technology to tell the story of a woman going crazy. I hope My Turkey Sandwhich’s next show is a little lighter but I was drawn into the story of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and hope that I am never forced to stare at any one thing for too long.