Performance art usually works best when it's not patently obvious what the artists are trying to say. A poem, in other words, is better than a speech. That's how it seemed to me Saturday night at Downtown's Bricolage theater space, where this internationally acclaimed troupe staged a new version of Corpo Ilicito: The Post-Human Society #69. The memorable show drew a full house -- well over a hundred, drawn heavily from the local theater community.
Some walked out of the hour-plus performance. But a number of folks who are usually particular about, or indifferent or even hostile toward performance art said they were genuinely engaged by the work's questions and provocations about culture, ethnicity, sexuality, domination and more. As well as its sheer theatricality.
At either end of the smallish venue, Pocha principals Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Roberto Sifuentes staged a series of politically charged tableaux vivant on small risers. The first pair of scenes set the tone: The long-haired, heavily made-up Gómez-Peña, costumed to suggest a barrel-chested Native American drag queen up top, a hairy debutante below, struck a series of poses with a half-naked blonde female assistant, usually with her restraining him with such accoutrements as a dog chain attached to a collar.
Sifuentes, meanwhile, stood swathed in yards of clear plastic film, inside of which he was locked in an embrace with a large, palely reddish object that turned out to be the skinned carcass of a goat. Sifuentes' skin was coated with red gore, which also stained the crotch of the diaper he wore, along with tinted goggles and a camouflage jacket. His "assistant" was a sort of naughty nurse, who eventually sliced him from this chrysalis.
Piped-in music ranged from Beach Boys harmonies to "Amazing Grace" on bagpipes and Latino dance music. A projected-video loop offered silent-era depictions (both fictional and documentary) of aboriginal peoples, plus racist sequences from The Birth of a Nation -- and a little antique girl-on-girl bondage.
Every few minutes, the tableaux changed: Gómez-Peña put on blush, performed a "native" ritual with spray deodorant (very funny), and had people wash his feet. Sifuentes wielded a machete, held his feet over lit candles, and wore the gutted goat carcass, its neck lolling, like a headpiece.
The work that was more suggestive, rather than explicit, felt most powerful. Sifuentes polishes a gun with a handkerchief-sized U.S. flag -- eh, kinda obvious. When he rolls it into a tourniquet and ties it off, as if to shoot up -- a little more interesting. When another small flag sits inside the oxygen bag he inhales from -- it's hard to say what it meant, exactly, but it got my attention.
Likewise, the soundtrack. Gómez-Peña, for one, was born in Mexico, and Corpo Ilicito was touted as a commentary on post-Bush, post-9/11 society. So excerpting Bush lies ("I did not ask for this war") was fish-in-a-barrelly, especially for this crowd. But excerpting a martial passage from Obama's acceptance speech -- "To those who would tear the world down, we will defeat you" -- felt like helpful recontextualization.
La Pocha likes audience participation, and the group recruits. I ended up onstage twice. The first time, I was handed a toy rifle and asked by Gómez-Peña to place the barrel "at my genitals ... It's OK," he said in his accented English. "Pooosh."
The San Francisco-based Gómez-Peña and Sifuentes had performed at a previous arts fest, setting up a "confession booth" here, back in the mid-'90s. This spring, they also conducted a workshop with local artists. The show that grew from that workshop, titled Homeland Insecurity, will be performed at 8 p.m nightly Thu., June 11, through Sat., June 13, at Bricolage, 937 Liberty Ave., Downtown. Tickets are $10.