New York

Fred Holland

The Ohio Theater

The sound of rhythmically shuffling feet signaled the arrival of the performers in Fred Holland’s current version of What I Like About Us, 1990. That Holland and co-performer Robbie McCauley were heard before they were fully seen served as an appropriate introduction to a piece based on the lives of June and Jennifer Gibbons, known as the “Silent Twins.” The twins hid themselves, especially from their own family, and their presence at home was reduced to the muffled sound of their movements in the upstairs bedroom in which they lived. Communicating in an invented language intelligible only to each other, the silent twins created elaborate games and rituals, and even wrote poems and novels. These modes of communication sufficed until the girls reached their teens and turned to a life of crime. Arson was their specialty, and June, quoted by biographer Marjorie Wallace, wrote of her “lovely glorious fire. . . . a picture which will live in my mind forever. . . . Don’t I deserve to express my distress?” The twins, age 27, are now incarcerated in a British maximum security hospital.

What I Like About Us was based on the twins’ situation, and while it helped to know some of the details of the Gibbons’ story, Holland’s expertise was evidenced in his brilliant manipulation of formal effects aimed at exposing the psychodynamic of the Gibbons’ twinship. First made aware of the performers’ presence through sound, the audience was placed in a position analogous to that of the girls’ alienated family, who knew the twins primarily through their aural cipher. The twins’ own alienation, within a broader social context, was represented by the performers’ attire. Identical British-schoolgirl checked skirts, white shirts, and clunky tie-shoes referenced the attempted Anglo-socialization of the Gibbons girls who, being of West Indian descent, were alienated not only by their status as twins and by their bizarre behavior, but by their racial otherness in the eyes of their all-white community in Wales.

A sense of the twins’ bizarre public behavior—an effort, perhaps, on the Silent Twins’ part to retrieve power over their otherwise biologically and societally induced alienation—was evoked by Holland and McCauley in their ceremonious entry. In slow synchrony, each wheeled a mysterious-looking apparatus topped with plaster casts of human torsos. Like rigidified fragments of flayed skin floating above the bodies they represented, the sculptural forms (by Steve Staso) along with the performers’ synchronized movement, symbolized the relationship of the twin to her body—the simultaneous dissociation from the body (as a means of psychologically separating from the “mirror image” twin) and bonding through synchrony (in an effort to remain forever together). Holland’s decision to cast himself in the piece underscored the former aspect of this process, which tempts dissociation from one’s own gender (in fact, the Gibbons girls sometimes dressed as boys).

Holland and McCauley moved through other rituals, including the burning of miniature houses. Whenever their actions became too individuated, however, one would bring the other back into line with a hypnotizing, exquisitely chilling furtive glance or a physical interaction choreographed to seem spontaneous and magnetic. A fleeting appearance by a third performer (Jake Jones) challenged the twins’ unity, only driving them closer.

Other examples of the provocative balance between form and content in What I Like About Us included the stunning lighting design by Carol McDowell. The use of scrims, as well as films by Cathy Weis, often magnified the performers’ bodies, conveying the way in which the psychological presence of one twin could seem colossal to the other, well out of proportion to her mere physical presence. Lawrence D. Morris’ sometimes dissonant music paralleled these tensions with subtlety.

Holland prompts us to think about the relationship between separation and bonding that has both assured and threatened the Silent Twins’ survival, and perhaps the survival of every individual who understands that the human psyche is made up of both warring and companionable parts. Thus, the lives of June and Jennifer Gibbons, in the hands of Fred Holland, became a metaphor for the dualisms and multiplicities of identity with which we all grapple on a daily basis.

Kathy O’Dell