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Arresting Development

Narrative performance obliquely veers into headlong confrontation with abuse

Photo: Philip Laubner, License: N/A, Created: 2010:10:19 19:18:35

Philip Laubner

Rebecca Nagle (left to right), Sarah Tooley, and Monica Mirabile.

The three young women onstage are helping the audience distinguish between good touches and bad touches. All three wear cute orange and green costumes, which match the safety-cone orange and slime-green accents of the set. It’s a playful environment, meant to suggest a whimsical and attention-grabbing kids television show. And so much about the experience of Darb TV perfectly captures that spirit, from the hot colors to the stuffed-animal-like talking puppet stage-right that sometimes functions as host and guide.

At the moment, though, Monica Mirabile (who also designed the costumes) and Rebecca Nagle stand arms akimbo to either side of Sarah Tooley at this Nov. 2 press preview, and Tooley asks the audience to call out an example of a “good” touch. “A hug,” somebody offers. “A high five,” another voice calls. With each good touch, Nagle and Mirabile mime a childlike expression of joy, smiling and turning their palms up in a gleeful sort of way. Tooley then asks for bad touches, and the audience responds. “ A slap,” one voice calls, and with that Nagle and Mirabile cross their arms and frown.

Tooley then begins to push boundaries. What about when your father kisses your owie on your leg? “Good,” the audience responds. “What about when your father kisses your leg in your bed?” another one of the young women asks. The audience sits silent, and the expressionless Nagle and Mirabile push the now rhetorical questions into the uncomfortable with arresting speed: What about when your father kisses you in your bed and he’s drunk? What about when your father kisses you in your bed and he’s drunk and naked? What about when your father kisses you in your bed and he’s drunk and has an erection?

Darb TV, obviously, is not a kids show, but that it chooses to embrace that format, even tangentially, speaks to the power of its presentation and the intelligence behind its creation. Written by Nagle and realized by Nagle, Mirabile, and Tooley under the direction of Natalya Brusilovsky, the performance leaps from moments of casual and childish humor to moments of significant trauma. Sometimes these shifts are jarring and abrupt. Sometimes they’re rather seamless. That both are equally uncomfortable strengthens some of the performance’s ideas about the passive acceptance of sexual abuse.

As a performance artist, Nagle (“Playing the Dozen,” Art, June 10, 2009) has fearlessly tackled issues of the body, power, and boundary pushing before in ways that straddle outright performance and theatrical narrative. Darb TV represents her latest step closer to outright conventional theater without sacrificing the interactive and psychological reach of her performance work. “When I was writing the play I had the idea for some themes,” Nagle says by phone during a brief interview Nov. 4. “And I kept asking myself, ‘What’s the format? How am I going to put this all together?’ And then I thought, a fairy tale, or a kids story—like the Brothers Grimm and Mother Goose. And then I started leaning more toward a kids TV show.”

It’s this decision that lends Darb TV its shape. Puppet Face (voiced by the actresses) talks to the audience, and the actresses enter and leave the set for little episodic sequences in the narrative. Sometimes they’re looking for Darb (J. Gavin Heck); sometimes they’re trying to open a bottle that just won’t budge; sometimes they’re doing a puppet show or going through a cooking demonstration. All are moments that could easily spring from a children’s television program.

Of course, lurking in the thematic background of these segments is the shadow of childhood sexual trauma and incest. “I feel like I make really challenging work that can sometimes be hard for people to sit and watch,” Nagle says. “And one of the techniques I like to do is give it a familiar format so that people can be, ‘Alright, I know what this is—this is a television show.’ Just so that they have something to stand on.”

More than a familiar format, this kids TV show offers a resonating prism through which to view its subject matter. Early on in the play the actresses sing an intro song, announcing that they’re going to “unlock your dreams” even though you “won’t know what they mean.” It’s an easy way to excuse some of the more surreal moments that follow, but it’s also a fair statement of fact as to how a child might interpret things happening to him or her that get sublimated into situations he or she can understand.

One character reenacts almost an entire scene with puppets as a distancing strategy to separate herself from a question directly posed to her. A fairy tale book blurs the line between date rape and how to wake up a princess. And at one point, the actresses take places among the audience and deliver monologues of sexual abuse, completely obliterating the line between theater and theatergoer, localizing the site of these abuses not in the make-believe onstage but in the reality of the audience.

It’s a strategy echoed when you walk into the theater. Audience members are asked to fill out a questionnaire, and even in the small sample of people attending the show you may discover some troubling facts about sexual abuse as viewed by the people in the room. Maybe three dozen people were present at the Nov. 2 preview, and the emotional journey Darb TV traveled was fun and arresting, playful and harsh.

It’s a precarious balance to maintain. After the Nov. 2 preview Nagle asked people to stay after and provide them with feedback since the performance was the first time anybody had seen the production. “It was interesting,” Nagle says of the feedback. “I’ve gotten a lot of e-mails and phone calls. A lot of positive stuff—people thought it was really powerful and moving. I think the part that I’ve been thinking about is how to prepare people for some of the more difficult material. And it’s hard, because you want it to be jarring but you also want people to feel safe, so it’s a matter of figuring out how to balance that.”

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