“WOLF” Politics: Performance art behind the barn

WOLF sinks its teeth into the history, science and myth of this remarkable creature, while putting a domestic finger on the pulse of our uneasy relationship with the wild.

WOLF is the latest installment in Deke Weaver’s life-long project, The Unreliable Bestiary, and part of the Moon Festival this semester at the University of Illinois. The project aims to build a bestiary of performance-art pieces to consider through the lens of individual animals our evolving relationship with the natural world. Bestiaries are a medieval print tradition: they were detailed treatises on real and mythical animals, often exquisitely detailed, the catalog of which developed a moral argument for its readers. They were especially popular from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries. (One of the most famous, the Aberdeen Bestiary, has been digitized and is now available online.) Just as this medieval tradition aimed to make claims about the ways in which the nature world can help orient ones moral compass, Weaver’s production of WOLF aimed to interrogate the dualistic role of this animal in our cultural imaginary as both a symbol of apocalyptic destruction and cosmic salvation.

Like learning a language, performance art is best experienced through immersion. With token in hand, participants loaded up two buses outfitted with park rangers. (Getting a spot, however, meant literally camping out in line for more than two hours.) I was fortunate enough to be on the director’s bus and was led through the performance by the hand of its creator from start to finish. The bus ride was entirely guided. Audience members were provided contextual information and taken through several activities in preparation for our entrance into the “Allerton International Biozone,” protected home of the mysterious “star wolves.” The bus elements were of a variety of media, including: a verbal science background, a group sing-along to “Home on the Range,”some howling practice, a carnivore expert video, guided practice of wolf expressions, interviews with threatened farmers, and a ranger rendition of the catch-&-release lullaby. The mixedness of the environmental design (Grant Bowen) of this “first act” worked to demonstrate the complexity of the wolf’s current political position while feathering in questionable assertions—such as mystical star wolves from another planet making their home in central Illinois—to switch on the audience’s interrogatory suspicions.

Equipped with the intellectual stakes wolves present, the audience was again divided into herds to make the trek through Allerton. For this “second act,” my “bison herd” separated at a fork in the path from our fellows in the “moose herd,” allowing for each of the four groups to have a unique experience. We experienced two wolf encounters along the path, one of a single trapped wolf and another of a path running alongside us. Signposts negated their own primary function by indicating the presence of wolves, bears, and star wolves essentially everywhere. From departure to return the audience’s attention was directed for every second not to any particular element, but to all the possible elements in our environs explicitly outside ourselves.

Inside the Allerton Barn before its repurposing as the Allerton International Biozone ranger headquarters.

The environmental design was the centerpiece of the production. All three acts of our movement through the evening—on the bus, walking through the park, and in the barn—was orchestrated and crafted to at least some extent. For the “third act” in this production we broke upon a clearing with the “ranger headquarters” and Barn interior performance space. The production was committed to the immersion approach even to the point of resisting allowing the participants affective responses that would gratify the performers but break the fiction of the Allerton International Biozone. This was most evident in the case of applause. The transition from topographical act to act was seamless. Even in our leaving we were asked to stand and hold hands in order to exit the barn to a serene soundscape. Before loading the buses we passed a woodsman chopping a huge pile of wood, reinforcing the fact that our environmental destruction is still on-going—that our attendance was not enough of an act of amelioration, but the threat continued.

Furthermore, Weaver’s cultivation of immersion not only resisted allowing our usual habits of theatre attendance—which here would have acted as rituals of safety, familiarity—was the emphasis on silence and contemplation in one’s environs. I would argue that such a stance was more productive than the more usual trick of engendering discussion and engagement with fellow attendees during the course of or apart of a performance. For example, one sign along our twilight hike indicated that for the rest of the evening our guides would no longer be guiding us, but we were to make of our encounters what we would. Because of twilight’s fading light the performers were able to construct a sense of tension: were we going to actually going to encounter wolves? Were these trained wolves or actors? Jennifer Allen (choreography, codirector, performer), rather than direct mimicry, pinpointed the indicative exaggerations of wolves, especially in faces and timing. Seeing a trapped wolf far ahead on the path, it was unclear whether this was actor or animal.Suspending our disbelief for nearly half the journey, this trick put into relief our own animalistic and destructive tendencies toward the wild in blurring the distinction between actor and animal.

Once in the Barn, audience members were arranged in a theatre-in-the-round formation using tree stumps as seats. The mise-en-place of the Barn was reminiscent of something between a communal sweat lodge and a ramshackle national park ranger headquarters. Decorated with madonna-esque wolf posters and golden wolf statue, the headquarters suggested our cultural deification of the wolf as the harbinger of cheap mystical salvation. This was all the most heightened by the stark juxtaposition to the dilapidated surroundings common to a childhood visiting federal conservation parks, perhaps underscoring our own naive consumption habits regarding finite resources.

Weaver seemed to argue that wolves have become emblems of both deep ecology and cheap mysticism.

This “third act” contained the more formal (or at least expected) elements of the performance, crafting a vision of the wolf with a broad smattering of multi-media. Approaching the barn in the full dark, the wolf actors convened in the main meadow and performed pack choreography beneath the moonlight and a single pool of light emanating from a spotlight in the only tree in the meadow. This included dance, short stories, video art, sculpted spaces, live and pre-recorded spoken word and singing, each genre rarely in operation without another. These elements kept the articulation of wolf movement at the center, underscoring their status as cultural symbols of exile. In the spoken word elements their were frequent references to holocaust and genocide which rung with especial heft considering the escalation in Syria this past week. For Weaver, the politics of wolves seems to be that of paradox: at once signs of potential to save the environment as they are emblems of our own choices furthering ecological destruction. In light of their recent removal from the Endangered Species List and renewal of communal wolf hunts, how can we look to wolves to save us if we have in fact been the main and continued source of their destruction?

To propose an answer, the mixed media, environs, and messages used to interrogate the place of wolves in our cultural imaginary relied on balancing the real and the myth. There were three narrative through-lines to the evening: the reality of the wolf population struggles on Isle Royale, a beer summit of corporate horror between Snow White’s Woodsman and Big (a.k.a. the Big Bad Wolf), and the ancient Native American myth of Fenris, the wolf at the heart of the world. The balance tactic used the absorbing power of myths to shock our systems into recognizing the reality to which they were analogues. By doing so Weaver was able to craft two arguments. First, wolves are indeed the heart of the world in that they present the most immediate symptoms by which we can diagnose the heath of our global ecology. The repopulation of wolves across the globe by the explicit influence and intent of humans was a step in the right direction; removing the wolves from a broad policy of national protection leaves them to the (usually destructive) whims of individual communities. Second, by writing new myths, some perhaps cobbled and some from whole cloth, we can begin to orient our destructive industrial relationship to the environment. Even in a corn desert like Illinois, wolves present a deep ecological approach to nature as not just a global but also a local—communally, individually—concern.

  • Tickets are free and can be picked up outside the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts starting at 5:30pm from September 12-16. They were going fast so make sure to arrive early; first comers arrived at 3:00pm. Buses depart for the Allerton International Biozone at 6:15pm sharp.
  • Weaver will be presenting excerpts from MONKEY, ELEPHANT, and WOLF at the 2013 Chicago Humanities Festival. This one-night-only event will be splitting the bill with Holly Hughes at the Lookingglass Theatre Company in downtown Chicago on 4 November beginning at 7:30pm.
  • For more information on Deke Weaver’s life-long project, The Unreliable Bestiary, of which this project is apart, just him out on twitter or his blog, UnreliableBestiary.org.
  • Want to know about Deke’s design vision? Check out the TEDTalk he gave (see the video below).

The White Queen 1.3: The Storm

KING EDWARD: I will return May Day morn with peaches and salt cod for you and my Prince Edward!

English history has a rich relationship to tempests. These storms for the small island nation seem to serve as tests, nature plumbing its resolve. The great storm of 1588 destroyed the Spanish Armada, a force that would have likely taken out the newly minted Queen Elizabeth Tudor’s meager military. Prospero’s storms have the power to suspend and displace time to give Shakespeare room to delve the human condition. This third episode of The White Queen takes centers around another storm on the English channel that buffets the rebelling Lord Warwick and his family, including George, Duke of Clarence, from reaching France, and causes Isabel Neville to lose her child on the rough seas—what would have been a male heir to George’s Plantagenet legitimacy. The Lancastrians are tested and come up wanting by episode’s end.

A view of the storm the Rivers women summon from a window in the Tower of London.

Rebellion and uprising, issues hinted at in the first episode, “In Love With the King,” are now beginning to take center stage again as the organizing plot forces at work. His rebellion to put George on the throne came up a poor bet for Warwick, resulting in the deaths of Elizabeth’s father and brother. Edward continues to demonstrate a sense of state-craft in brokering an uneasy peace with the Kingmaker, but it unsurprisingly lasts only a short time. He is willing to see beyond Warwick’s resistance as rather an act of fidelity to the idea of a “good king” for England rather than serving the interests of a particular faction. Elizabeth suspects otherwise but is unable to articulate that she sees a change in the root of Warwick’s virtue, and can only be merely suspect of him:

ELIZABETH: What do you mean, another uprising?
EDWARD: In favor of witless old Henry, with a leader who will not announce his name.
ELIZABETH: A leader with no name?
EDWARD: Maybe a herald to Margaret of Anjou, to test how much support she can raise before she can land her troops to free her husband. So, I will make quick work of it.
ELIZABETH: Send someone else to lead the army.
EDWARD: No, it is my crown. I must defend it. I must put my neck on the line for the men who love me.

The series continues to rely on scenes that juxtapose communal and personal motives of equal weight and virtue, especially for Edward who at times, like in this scene, seems to handle them a bit too well, a bit too calmly. He is driven by a need to reciprocate the fidelity—that kind of more-than-filial duty upon which the power structure of feudal England was built—to his subjects who fight to keep him managing the throne. It is in moments like these that indeed King Edward is made a hero before he sets foot on the battlefield and Elizabeth comes off a bit petulant:

ELIZABETH: Edward, please don’t go. I’m—I’m with child again. And this time I’m sure it’s a boy.
EDWARD: This is the best news you could give me! How do you know it is a boy?
ELIZABETH: Ah, would you pry into a woman’s mysteries?
EDWARD: No, I would not.
ELIZABETH: Then please stay this time to protect us both.
EDWARD: It’s all the more reason for me to defend my crown for my son to inherit. My prince we will call Edward.
ELIZABETH: Edward, hmm.

Edward rides off yet again to quash rebellion by an as-yet unnamed leader, promising Elizabeth he will return bearing peaches and salted fish for May Day. He has additional motive with the hope of a son after many daughters have been born to he and Elizabeth. What this show does so very differently than The Tudors is position the need for an heir as a widespread political necessity rather than as a single man’s narcissistic obsession. His return on May Day (a day for lovers) with bounty is also a symbolic reinforcement of his line’s fertility. Elizabeth as a character is becoming increasingly flat in that as a figure in the ensemble she is coming to be analogous with a virtuous, beautiful, and fertile England. This symbolic position reinforces the sense of Edward’s legitimacy; as he is married to his wife, so is he wedded to his nation.

Edward returns with cartfulls of fish and peaches as evidence of his victory and divine right as the countryside flourishes in seasonal bounty under his governance.

The cod and peaches become a central visual motif in the episode before and after the storm. Debate between Lady Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale) and her husband Sir Henry Stafford (Michael Maloney) over what constitutes kingly legitimacy takes places in the estate kitchens, where bushels of peaches are being preserved and moved about by tenants. Margaret clings to a peach as she considers her divine vision that her son, Henry Tudor, will become king one day. These conversations are measured until Jasper Tudor enters the picture:

JASPER: There was an uprising. Our time has come at last.
HENRY: Queen Margaret is sailing?
JASPER: She is in Calais, and will sail once Edward is engaged in battle. Oxford brings ten thousand men from the south, and I have half of Wales.
MARGARET: So you must arm your tenants and go. The tide is turning. It is our moment.
HENRY: I won’t ride out and I shall send no one.
JASPER: What?!
HENRY: These wars have taken too many men; I have lost a brother and a father to this cause and still it is not won.
JASPER: I, too, have lost my kinsmen and that is exactly why we must fight on, so that their sacrifice is not for nothing.

It is Henry and Edward who seem to see the larger picture of what is at stake for England in this civil war: that it was once a war between factioning and equally-legitimate houses, a nobles brawl, now actually affecting the sustainability of the nation on a geopolitical scale. Jasper upholds feudal values, pledging his troth–a promise of his life and every thing he stands for in the service of a lord–to the Lancastrian house in the belief that faith and loyalty win out in the end. Henry, like Edward, is a voice that signals a changing tide, an adjustment away from feudal to pre-modern structures of governance where policy is a primary organizing feature of power. But in a culture with a strong spiritual backbone, it is difficult to discredit Margaret’s horror at her husband pitting the idea of a better king against God’s anointed:

MARGARET: If we rise up now we can unseat the usurper and return the throne to Lancaster.
HENRY: Until the next time and the next time. Does King Henry even know that this war ls being fought? He barely even knows his name! (Pause) And Edward is the better king. The roads are safe, the nobles’ private armies have been disbanded, and brigands have been brought to justice. Perhaps that is what matters.
MARGARET: What matters is God’s rightful king upon the throne! Or do you abandon the Lord as well as your house?!
HENRY: Oh no no no. Edward is also anointed by God, so how should we know which one to pick? Perhaps God is confused and does not know himself?!
MARGARET: And now you blaspheme and blame all mighty God for your own shame! You are a coward and you fear for your own neck like a child. And I ask God everyday why I must be married to such a man.
HENRY: Enough Margaret, enough.
MARGARET: No! No it is not enough! It is not. How can I live with such bitter shame!

Despite hustling about behind them and being directly discussed as fodder for the field, Henry Stafford’s tenant are utterly silent and their faces rarely even make it into the composition of a shot. If this show aims to continue in its feminist bent, the only way we can read them seriously is thinking about Elizabeth as a kind of representative voice for the material sustainability of England and its tenanted commons while Margaret is her counterpoint as a voice representing the values of the ennobled classes fighting for the spiritual well-being of England regardless of her material self.

The Roses of York and Lancaster.

The English Reformation is not too far in the future of these characters, so despite the her virtuous and earthy beauty, the materiality of Elizabeth—especially in her connection with the sea and earthly magics—is in its last throws. As I suggested of episode two, the Rivers women evoke a mythological idyllic English past reminiscent of Arthurian romances where the monarch’s relationship to the land reverberated in their political governance of it. Austere Margaret and her son Henry are England’s future, as unromantic as they are. Thus it seems fitting that in seeking vengeance for her father and brother’s deaths, Elizabeth and her mother Jacquetta turn to the occult and summon that fateful storm on the channel. The darkened shots and the worried expression on Jacquetta’s face suggest that the Rivers women may have perhaps gone a step too far to demonstrate their fidelity to the Sons of York. But, at only three episodes in, who has yet to go too far in defense of such loyalty?

  • CITATION: “The Sorm.” The White Queen. Television. Directed by James Kent. Written by Emma Frost. 24 August 2013. London: BBC One, 2013. STARz cable channel.
  • Check out the BBC One promo video for this episode below: