New York

“So Long Ago I Can't Remember”

Gale Gates et al.

MICHAEL COUNTS'S So Long Ago I Can't Remember—a divine comedy was an evening-long collage of successive performances that led the viewer ever deeper into a renovated warehouse in Brooklyn. It added up to a phantasmagoric satire of such lamentable passages of Western history as Nazi Germany and the Inquisition, as well as a glimpse of the human tendencies that underlie such episodes of destruction. Based loosely on Dante's epic poem, the performance took the audience on a lavishly set and lit walking tour of the nine circles of hell to visit lost souls—from mobsters, fascists, and the mad to American tourists and hapless individuals slaving at menial jobs. Each character contributed his or her by turns frightened, angry, and frustrated voice to a stream-of-consciousness dialogue as haunting and delirious as a Guy Maddin cult classic, as fevered and oracular as Werner Herzog's Heart of Glass.

While the appropriately agitating original score by Joseph Diebes read as experimental, and the dialogue and scenes seemed open to interpretation, the production strongly suggested throughout, à la Wilhelm Reich, that wider social problems stem from the more basic, specifically sexual dysfunction of individuals. In one circle of hell, Pope Boniface VIII and two recent Cardinals (Law and O'Connor) drool and and writhe, muttering perversions worthy of Sade as they wider among the bodies of some young new arrivals, preparing to molest their souls. It's as if the dogmas propagated by these figures repressed a normal sexual/creative drive that mutated under wraps and eventually took over, leaving their souls the debauched caricatures prating dementedly before our eves. On the one hand the mark felt too easily hit, as in a barroom send-up of a local prelate. On the other, it was delicious to watch so acid a depiction of figures whose intolerance is largely unremembered, obscured by eulogistic piety and churchly kitsch.

The production's deployment of nudity also speaks more broadly to strengths as well as shortcomings. The familiarity the dominatrix narrator assumes with the audience jars richly with her sudden appearance nude (streaking down the hall of a freak-infested '20s-era Waldorf-Astoria in the seventh circle of hell). Yet a number of circumstances—the often jolting sound effects, the constant activity at the bar near the front of the space, and the stifling heat of the warehouse (which only intensified over the course of the two-and-a-half-hour evening)—were sometimes insurmountable distractions from the risks Counts's young, talented, and energetic troupe took in their athletic performances, which included some dazzling nude dance numbers.

Given that so much of Counts's hell is dedicated to silly diversions, greed, slovenliness, infantile fantasy, hypocrisy, excess, and despair, the production ultimately reads as a critique of contemporary living. The lyric visions of a Robert Wilsonesque purgatory and a strangely dim, lovely-if-confusing apotheosis in a wooded paradise bring no redemption. Counts seemed to waver between the less pointedly political or philosophically grounded, visionary style of Richard Foreman (seemingly a strong inspiration b e h d this production) and the exigencies of creating a more accessible satire, all the while with an eye toward making every moment of every scene a work of art in itself. His efforts are laudable; but at times the work seemed more like entertainment than theater, a spectacle or amusement instead of the more serious provocation it seemed to want to be. But this canny and dedicated group is one to watch.

Tom Breidenbach