Thursday, October 15, 2009

Fondly Do We Hope… Fervently Do We Pray at the Irvine Barclay Theatre

Behind a sheer white curtain, vignettes develop in the muted tones of old photographs as narrator Jamyl Dobson tells the story much as we’ve heard it before. Abraham Lincoln is born, works hard, falls in love with Mary Todd, has four boys…. We glimpse a family in dynamic action as Abe and Mary and their sons, connected by clasped hands and hooked arms, rock and slide and swing each other up overhead and safely back to the earth. He confronts slavery, the issue of the day…. Paul Matteson, as Lincoln, flops and flails on the floor, turning in the circles of an injured insect. He becomes President…. The white-suited Matteson bounds, then stalks stiffly and gestures emphatically, his legs unfurling and pressing like long, flapping wings. He brings a country to war to save itself… is assassinated.

Dancers whip the curtain away and we see him in the flesh, face flushed, at once humanized and memorialized against a backdrop of columns that suggest the White House, the Lincoln Memorial, and democracy itself. Bill T. Jones’ Fondly Do We Hope… Fervently Do We Pray moves through the legends, impressions and famous words of Abraham Lincoln to discover a man and his enduring relevance and challenge to America.

Fondly Do We Hope pursues this admirably ambitious vision with a deluge of projected and spoken text, riveting performance of an original musical score, bits of video, and glorious dancing. It’s a rare thrill to see dance on a grand scale and in the company of such brilliant collaborators as vocalists George Lewis Jr. and Clarissa Sinceno, but the work often seems either overwhelmed by its vast scope or frustratingly busy and limited by layers of overbearing text. Where Jones trusts bodies to speak with potent subtlety and allows us to dwell thoughtfully in complexity, however, he creates an intimate and nuanced portrait that moves and calls us to stewardship of the liberty our country claims.

A shouted and danced debate blends words Lincoln and Stephen Douglas exchanged about slavery in 1858 with cries of the current American culture wars over gay marriage, military involvement in the Middle East, immigration policy and interrogation by torture. But the political references seem like sound bites and the movement mere accompaniment until the chaos climaxes in focused unison and the entire company unites in gestural recitation of our Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident….” In the cadence of the spoken words, elbows stab out from shoulders, backs arch, heads look up, and powerful singleness of purpose replaces sensory overload. “All men are created equal….” Knees bend, chests cave, bodies drop to the floor. In the raw physicality we see pain caused by failure to realize these words and the consuming effort required to act on them.

Moving, spoken portraits of contemporary Americans – apparently both real and fictitious – poke at these political sore spots again and again. “She was born in 1939.” In dull gray dress and thick black stockings, Jennifer Nugent labors with the deliberate, efficient and direct strokes of one who knows hard work – her body all sinew, starkly defined in white light and shadow. Dobson tells us about her tough childhood, and the dancing becomes supplement rather than primary source. “She knows slavery was wrong, but she wishes things could be clear like they used to be.” This woman, like the earnest soldier we meet earlier who “doesn’t care much about history,” remains flat and distant because the calculation is evident; I know which statements are intended to draw out my opposing views and which are supposed to pull me toward her in empathy, so unfortunately I bristle at the assumptions and push away from the artifice.

In contrast, we get to know Mary Todd Lincoln – danced with intriguing dimension by Asli Bulbul – throughout the evening, and mostly through her body. Flashes of red underskirt amidst quick flicks and sudden shifts suggest Mary’s mercurial nature, but when followed by tender turns in a waltz with Matteson and a stunned walk in the black of mourning, we see a fully formed person and an utterly devoted wife.

The work’s sweeping scale shrinks to a single point of focus as Matteson stands on stage alone. In the stillness we see that he bears something of Lincoln’s humble dignity in his chest and shoulders. With gentle folds of the torso he considers and carries out a careful leap into space, spongy legs and quiet cat feet absorbing the decided step. Through the silence we hear only occasional squeaks of directional shifts and lovely pats of feet against floor. When his arms rise confidently to a V, then lag, collapse, and rest a while, I’m reminded of things I’ve read about Lincoln’s retreats into prayer when overcome by the weight of a country and its war. These few moments of bare physical presence make me feel for and care about this weary, solitary man as I never have.

Room to consider, to drink in image or sound or movement, is hard to find in Fondly Do We Hope… Fervently Do We Pray, but when the many elements fall into step with one another or fall away entirely, we wander to revelatory places. Unfortunately, from such exhilarating heights the piece drags out to a heavy-handed conclusion: “Lincoln is a story we tell ourselves. We still dedicate, we still consecrate ourselves to his unfinished work….” The attempt to summarize the past 90 minutes diminishes where we’ve been together, and I’m ready for some time with my own thoughts.

Other responses to this work:

New York Times

LA Times