Deranged Desert Spirits

Photo by Joseph Lambert/Jazzy Photo

The term escapism is generally reserved for media containing a simpler, more digestible world—The Bachelorette perhaps, or yet another Marvel blockbuster. It all depends however, on what you’re trying to escape. Those exhausted from the banality of the everyday found catharsis at the Slate Theater last weekend, losing themselves in the unhinged theatrical dance work Savage Summer. The truly convention-weary may have even found some commonalities with the main characters, who operate entirely outside the realm of “normal.”

Inspired by Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Markeith Wiley and Amy J Lambert’s Savage Summer also features a duo on a surreal journey to Las Vegas across the desert. The Slate Theater’s tiny blackbox became a literal sandbox, complete with a sand waterfall pouring down from the rafters by some stage magic. Light plays on the cascading granules, out of which emerge the strange travelers.

Wiley and Lambert, who are also the piece’s directors and choreographers, slowly unfold their intertwined bodies as if, amoeba-like, one becomes two. We have only moments to take in their appearance: Hawaiian shirts, khaki shorts, tall white socks and yellow aviators, before they speak incoherently at a small toy bat and fade into the background. A pool of light directs our attention downstage where a man dressed as a bat, Andy Buffelen, is interviewed by a bodiless voice over the sound system. The voice asks what he had for breakfast and ominously refers to “the incident.” Buffelen responds with child-like eagerness, and already we have a sense that his wide-eyed naiveté is a sharp contrast with the two wild desert spirits. 

The action unfolds cinematically, jump-cutting between disparate images or changes in scale. In one scene Wiley and Lambert drive a matchbox car over their bodies and through the sandbox—the dips and peaks become huge mountains and valleys. Another scene features no humans, but colored lights on sand streaming from the ceiling accompanied by soaring synth music. One of several extended dance sequences features Buffelen performing a perfectly charming “tap” dance to the recorded sound of a tapper who humorously interacts with a squeaky spot in the floor. Of course in this case we know it’s only sand, which makes it even funnier.

We don’t get interviews with Lambert and Wiley, so their characters remain a bit of a mystery. They slow motion high-five, dig their personal effects out of the sand, and  frolic madly to big band music. Always in synch with one another, their movement ranges from jazzy musical theatre fare to modern partnering, carrying one another’s draped bodies across the sand.  Lambert’s deranged antics are especially funny—she charges the space in an unwieldy frenzy that fluctuates wildly in direction and volume, keeping her delightfully unpredictable. There’s something very goofy, even slap-stick, about both of them, but they are so fully committed in their mission, so serious and strange that it never crosses into camp.

Lambert and Wiley’s off-the-rails dialogue is hard to capture in concrete terms, but the two are possessed by a kind of mania, intensely preoccupied by a shared reality entirely their own. When they finally arrive in Vegas, marked by the appearance of casino dealers in classic vests and visors, the pair soulfully lip-synchs to a Sampha song. Suddenly the Sampha halts, the lights shift, and we see them from outside their delusion: a couple of loonies banging on a toy piano. It’s now clear that this shifting between realities has been happening all along. It’s no wonder these lumbering characters, who stumble through the sand, posture pitched forward with middle-age, suddenly execute skilled dance steps. We’re simply glimpsing their fantasy world.

Altered realities, accessed through art or otherwise, offer escape from the ordinary and there’s something freeing about this show’s disregard for continuity. Savage Summer doesn’t care in the least about loose ends. Much like the back seat on a wild ride across the desert, we must give up some control to participate, letting our intuition lead rather than our comprehension.

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