New York

Iris Rose, “House of Jahnke”

Pyramid Cocktail Lounge

Post-Modern seems to mean “neo”: neo-expressionism, neo-figurativism, neo-surrealism, and so on. One critic proposes that what is really going on is neo-classicism. I look at the proliferating revival of forms like the Ionic frieze and Roman sarcophagus in recent Soho shows, and the increasing allusions to the archaeological site by painters and sculptors alike, and perceive a neoantique strain to it all. Nowadays the question about an artist is: what does he or she quote from the past? Pueblan artifacts? Tantric icons? One’s bag from history is in a sense one’s signature, like the distinctive “touch” of old. Some fusions are so dead in terms of understanding the antique element quoted as to be a kind of rape of its corpse by a mindless future.

Iris Rose’s House of Jahnke is a happier case. In it the conventions of Greek tragedy are revived, altered, and used to present a historical event, of Greek tragic type, drawn from the newspapers: the murder of a harsh father, Richard Jahnke, in Cheyenne, Wyoming, by his son in complicity with his daughter. The title seems an allusion to the “House of Atreus,” and the action is presented as a very loose parallel to the murder of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus by Orestes in complicity with his sister Electra. In the performance I saw, masked actors and actresses representing the parents and two children were onstage most of the time (breaching, incidentally, the classical convention that no more than three speaking actors be visible at once). On a platform in front of and beside the stage three unmasked players acted the role of chorus. The rather elaborate framework of Greek tragic conventions never felt merely academic or forced. It combined a remarkable contemporaneity of social engagement and found materials with a sense of the living force of an ancient medium overpowering in its time—a sense one does not get from the official recreations of the tragedies in Greece today. The text, written by Rose, involved a modest but unashamed display of literary competence. It seemed in fact that the classical framework provided a restraint and order to this piece that Rose’s more free-form works do not always possess.

The production was stripped down (no emphasis on special lighting or music) and could have been presented in almost any kind of space. While the seven players spoke they engaged in complex, precisely choreographed dance movements in place. They could not have been better rehearsed; text and choreography were thoughtfully composed and flawlessly executed. The pacing was ferociously fast, and the quality of concentration was far beyond what one usually feels in this most ebullient of performance spaces. I think the audience was surprised at how immediately and intensely it responded to Rose’s simultaneously witty and somber work. Only later, while walking home, did one wonder: will we ever get post-neo? Does any future lie on the other side of the past?

Thomas McEvilley