After three years of work and a five-month delay, Peter Carpenter’s dissection of the Reagan era opens at the Hamlin Park Fieldhouse. In an excerpt presented last week in The Other Dance Festival, dancers pantomime slow-mo action-film deaths, like pre-teens in a parking lot after a “Die Hard” screening. Their mock machine-gun sounds fade as they fall in step, marching and repeating a gestural phrase conveying God and country, pivoting like clockwork gears. In the foreground, one dancer crumples slowly to the floor to be gathered in a protective embrace by Carpenter in a rubber Reagan mask, his head lifted at the sound of the marching company.
Carpenter talked with me about resistance, fragility and finding sympathy through the creation of art.
I’ve been obsessed with Reagan since 1994 when he disclosed his Alzheimer’s diagnosis in the New York Times. I remember having this ambivalent reaction of both sorrow and a feeling that some poetic justice was done, because of the people I knew who had died of HIV/AIDS, having seen them go through dementia. Originally I was thinking there’d be a film component, but it seemed appropriate for it to be just live, as opposed to film and video which were Reagan’s mediums. It became less about Reagan and more about a resistance to Reagan. What better resistance to Reagan than a motley crew of bodies? It’s not monochromatic, there’s not one body type, there’s not one gender performance going on; there’s multiplicity.
In the release, you mention the multiplicity of Reagan’s personae. What do you mean?
One critic talked about how odd it is that he’s considered the great communicator when there’s this huge disconnect between what he said and what he did. Reagan talked about a nation that takes care of one another—the thousand points of light being a safety net for those less fortunate. Yet he consistently cut from that safety net in order to build the largest weapons explosion ever. Also, he was a great performer. I had this impression he was just a B-movie actor, but he was actually very skilled at the rapid-fire, stand-and-deliver style that was so popular at the time. As an actor myself, I really quite admire his work. And then he embodied this town-sheriff persona as president: the cowboy to ward off invasion of Soviets, the mayor of the City on the Hill, and shifting to this poor old man who couldn’t remember his wife’s name.
Were there any moments in your process when your relationship with the subject surprised you?
I thought I was going to make an angry rant that would be funny and use whatever intellectual gifts I may or may not have to kind of…beat Reagan. It became much less about that. I became interested in how fragile we are as people, and how seeing that fragility next to Reagan’s rhetoric made us seem even more fragile. The show was supposed to happen in May, but I had pneumonia and had trouble recovering; that definitely influenced the work. It became less defiant and strident and much more vulnerable, and more human. And I found myself having some compassion for him at the end of his life. Alzheimer’s is such a horrible thing. I didn’t go into the project looking for that.
Also, I have to say, it’s nice to hear people laughing in the audience. I think people hear “Oh, it’s a dance-theater piece about Ronald Reagan, it sounds like so much work…like a bluebook exam.” But it’s kind of a funny show. I guess I’m not all doom and gloom. (Sharon Hoyer)
At the Hamlin Park Fieldhouse, 3035 N. Hoyne. October 8, 9, 15 and 16 at 7:30pm. $15. For tickets visit www.brownpapertickets.com/event/77988.