San Francisco

Suzanne Hellmuth and Jock Reynolds


Navigation, A Visual Theatre Performance by SUZANNE HELLMUTH and JOCK REYNOLDS, provided a bona fide contender for the type of reminiscences upon which performance art, by its temporary nature, must rely heavily for the creation of its own mythology. For about 25 minutes. Then, as do so many performance pieces, Navigation overworked a potentially good but rather single-minded idea (neatly encapsulated in the title, so there really weren’t any surprises) and, unlike the paintings it so often resembled, gave the weary viewer no chance to escape until the nearly ad nauseam, wavy end.

Navigation, accompanied by On the Other Ocean, appropriately watery music by David Behrman, proceeded without story line to demonstrate a sort of aquatic pilgrim’s progress, and succeeded in emerging without dramatic impact as well. A number of male and female persons in white sailor suits entered the stage from time to time, performed semi- or non-nautical duties—coiling rope, walking the plank—and retreated.

The unique twist to Navigation is that Hellmuth and Reynolds used all the moving parts of the stage and not an inconsiderable battery of theatrical lighting devices continually to alter the performer’s environment and maintain the constant level of pitch and roll often encountered on the high seas. Gigantic, stage-wide shapes suggestive of a ship, rigging, nautical flags and other seaworthy items were perpetually raised and lowered like so many flying stage sets. Performers moved in and out among these obstacles, often with a rolling gait themselves, or, in extreme cases, being deposited on the floor from a moving sub-stage platform. The allusions to paintings were everywhere—to Winslow Homer’s Kissing the Moon, to the work of nearly any minimalist painter, to the color study arrangements of Josef Albers (especially in the last part when a large rectangle with two doorlike shapes descended into an environment of subtly chosen interrelated color choices). By that time the progression from aquatic protozoan world was complete and the right angled images resembled those of a structurally complex civilization. The performers deliberately failed to interact in the same way that George Tooker’s painted, cylindrical, overlighted figures fail to interact—they are kept apart by their own intensity and by their concentrated effort to move through the series of obstacles that define their lives. Behrman’s music, while not ill-chosen, faded into accompaniment, unable to compete with the visuals. The single humorous image, that of sailors jiggled about in the waves, produced uneasy laughter from the hushed audience.

Navigation wasn’t an unsuccessful piece. It was just too long. And, an old sailing buff has to mention it—all the undulating stage sets in the world can’t conjure up a nautical environment when the portholes are square!

Mary Stofflet