Ben J. Riepe's ensemble performed not with grace but with an unusual intelligence
Ben J. Riepe Kompanie's “Love/Death/Devil – The Piece” produces categorical dissonance. Its inherent estranged context is one evident reason but more than that, the performance works at different levels of consciousness and does not lend to glib interpretation. Writing about it thus becomes an act of precarious examination.
The opening act of the piece is a deliberately prolonged exercise in clinical transformation. A man in a black Mad Hatter costume enters, sizes up a stock-still woman in a white tailcoat and becomes her sculptor.
From a benign mannequin posture the woman is studiously transformed into the grotesque posture of a corpse who might have died a violent death. This exercise is amplified in carefully measured steps where each part of the woman's body is sharply moulded.
By the time three bunnies enter, Ben J Riepe and his highly trained ensemble have constructed a combative imaginative space. Reed thin women teeter on high heels and move like battle figures in a video game. A single gesture is distributed amongst the rest of the ensemble to structure a mob of clones. This device builds up a menacing atmosphere in one sequence where all the performers mime the universal posture of a gunman except for a single woman with a megaphone droning out a stream of questions: “Are you afraid of them? Are you afraid of dying?”
In “Love/Death/Devil – The Piece”, human voices are mangled, fractured through a megaphone or gurgling under a mike. However, telling exceptions are made for the renditions of “Moon River” and two rap pieces.
An astonishing theatrical moment is revealed when a lull, marked by a pastoral composition punctuated with a drawn out moo and the ensemble in animal masks, recede backstage to leave one woman in a bunny mask on stage. She continues to moo but as she slowly grabs the mask off her face, the moo turns out to be the masked sound of a woman squalling.
The coda is a gash of brilliant white showbiz light under which performers in sexed up, bright Alice in Wonderland costumes dance in sharp exaggerated movements. Then they all withdraw to a table at the far end of the stage to stare back as a still image. The image hangs like a formulaic baroque family painting.
Ben J Riepe and his ensemble performed not with grace but with an unusual intelligence for time, space and calculated action.