Upon entering the theater for Nora Chipaumire’s “Miriam,” patrons were told that once the show began, there was no walking out.
But once the show did begin, there were plenty of people who probably did want to walk out — as “Miriam,” a duet with Okwui Okpokwasili, was a torturous experience. Dark and creepy, the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer show made a point of making theater-goers uncomfortable and silently praying for the end.
The work was billed as tapping into the spirit of the brave Biblical Miriams. But Chipaumire, the woman who squealed and clawed bore no resemblance to the protective sister of Moses or the mother of Jesus. (Miriam is Hebrew for Mary).
Rather, Chipaumire’s Miriam was a wild animal — breaking free from the traditional roles expected of women, but in a distorted and ugly manner.
As the audience entered, finding seats on all four sides of the square stage, the show was essentially running. Listening to water dripping from a suspended, plastic jug, patrons got their only good look at the stage. Yellow police tape was tethered to a ladder with large lights. The ribbons of tape blocked the view of half of the audience. The other half could see a scattering of large rocks. One pile of rocks, on top of a tarp, had a leg sticking out of it.
Most assumed it was a mannequin’s leg, until the start of the show, when the lights went dim and the leg moved. From this pile of rubble, emerged a panting, screeching and twisted creature. When she wasn’t uttering guttural noises, she repeated “I am happy” and “always remember to smile.” This was Miriam’s birth and it happened, like the rest of the dance, in shadow.
As she was contorting on the floor, a door creaked opened and a large woman — again in darkness stepped out. Adjusting our eyes to the dark, we could see she her silhouette and the ragged circle of tulle she wore on her back. We could also hear her footsteps — loud, ominous thumps. “Miriam” was quickly turning into a horror show.
With a headlamp illuminating her way around the stage perimeter, this second creature acted as Miriam’s spirit guide. Putting a spotlight on Miriam, as if in an interrogation room, and sitting above her at the top of the ladder, she commanded her moves via a megaphone. Miriam grunted “cigarette, cigarette, cigarette” and her guide complied, throwing a few in her face.
The remainder of the show had Miriam finally standing tall, washing her face, which was blackened, and changing her clothes. She violently stabbed to shreds a foil mirror and then put on clunky shoes like her director so she too could walk around like Frankenstein.
At one point, the chaperone looked at Miriam, who was still shrieking, and commanded her to stop it. She then turned to the audience and said, “horrid.”
Indeed, it was.