Below the main entrance of the Museum of Contemporary Art, through the doors that lead from the gleaming white first-floor vestibule, past the coatcheck and the bustle of Marisol, down the stairs of the black-box theater, a stage is shrouded in fog. Forest sounds fill the room and moonlight seems to bathe the downstage area, in front of the black curtain. A slim figure in white shorts and a clear plastic jumper lurches puppet-like in front of the curtain to haltingly relay a little-known Grimm fairy tale of a girl struck down by God for her willfulness, and whose stubborn corpse continued to defy the grave until her mother intervened with a slap to her reanimated hand.
Thus opens Ligia Lewis’ “Water Will (in Melody),” January 30-February 1 at the MCA. Then things really get creepy. The black proscenium curtain, which appears to float untethered, draws back at the corners to reveal a nearly bare stage, save a heavy, knotted climbing rope upstage right, and the four dancers, more marionettes than flesh, who populate this chilling nightmare. Lewis’ conclusion to her “Blue, Red, White” triptych finds the relationship between authority, willful resistance and punishment a source of horror. Through the gloom, which only thickens over the course of the hour, menace hums and rises to fever pitch. One is keenly aware of the trappings of the theater—extraordinary lighting design by Ariel Efraim Ashbel (a character all its own); a shifting soundscape of ambience, choral vocalizations and pop by S. McKenna; onstage mist; the relentless fog machine—yet this awareness only adds to a sense of mounting dread. Like, what if I can’t wake up? Like, what if I leave the theater and this performance breaks free from the room and follows me home? Lewis and her co-creators and performers mine the narrow corners of the subconscious for material, for the absurd, the shameful, the grotesque: a repeated snippet of German cabaret, a sixth-grade jazz class that abruptly ends in violence, twisted dolls scattered at the bottom of a murky pool.
Yes, something is very, very wrong. But what is the true source of this terror? Near the end of the performance, Lewis comes to the edge of the stage to remind us “It’s love and it’s hate,” and invokes our pupils to dilate as we stare into the darkness. What will be revealed when our eyes adjust? And who is to be feared: the hands of the young girl reaching through the earth for the sky, or the hands of power repeatedly pushing hers back into the grave? (Sharon Hoyer)
At the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 East Chicago, (312)397-4010. Thursday-Saturday, January 30-February 1. $30. Tickets at mcachicago.org.