New York

Ellen Fisher

P. S. 122

In her new performance work, Dreams within Dreams: The Life of Edgar Allan Poe, Ellen Fisher shows the influence both of Robert Wilson and of her frequent collaborator, Meredith Monk. Nonetheless, she succeeds in establishing a theatrical sensibility of her own. As the title of the piece would suggest, the atmosphere here is that of a dream. A TV monitor made to look like an oval Victorian portrait of a woman hangs on one of the walls and is just perceptibly moving. Two women, dressed identically in white linen nightgowns, enter the stage and proceed silently to mirror each other’s movement throughout the performance. They remain unseen by other characters, yet observe and react to them. Fisher underlines the eroticism of this dreamworld and its link to death, particularly in the roles of The Raven, The Black Cat, and Red Death. At one point, two Parlor Ladies are shown ingesting ether and laughing. They are entertained with a ouija board by a Southern Gentleman. One of the questions put to the ouija board is “Will there be a war?” The Southern Gentleman manipulates the board to answer “Of course not.”

Poe is the presence that ties the piece together, although for most of the time we only hear his voice and see the silhouette of his shrouded corpse. On the wall behind him are projected questions that Poe either answers or uses as excuses for talking about his own obsessions: women, writing, and death. “The secret of poetry is in the creation of an ideal,” he says at one point, and one feels Fisher has thought carefully and critically about this statement.

A series of black and white films is shown; sometimes two projectors double the image. Toward the end of the piece, the shadow cast by Red Death appears to enter the world of the film, wreaking havoc on a soirée of masked revelers. Meredith Monk’s extraordinary music for voice and piano envelops the work, underscoring its dreamlike quality. The piece has certain affinities with the work of Jacques Lacan; in fact, Lacan wrote a seminal essay on Poe’s story “The Purloined Letter.” Although no direct reference is made either to Lacan or to the body of feminist theory that draws upon Lacan, the piece is heavy with these associations. Nevertheless, Fisher avoids tying her work to any particular critical theory.

Richard C. Ledes