The Rapidian

Making Sense of Cangue League's "Flowers"

One citizen's encounter with non-traditional performance art and her struggle towards comprehension.
Underwriting support from:
<em>Box People</em>

Box People /Eric Tank © All Rights Reserved

<em>Cangue League Orchestra</em>

Cangue League Orchestra /Eric Tank © All Rights Reserved

I ventured out last Saturday to see the third and final night of Cangue League’s play "Flowers" at Dog Story Theater

(7 Jefferson Avenue SE). The play had been billed as avant-garde and I was looking forward to seeing something different, something intellectual and visually interesting to fill my mind during this late winter evening.

In the lobby area I paid the $10 ticket fee and my attendance was duly noted with a hash mark by the cashier.  The theater was intimate at seating for 50, and during the evening was approximately three quarters full. The staff was polite and I appreciated being offered a seat cushion for my folding chair. While waiting for the last-minute printing of programs, I looked around, noticing the floor to ceiling curtain which divided the main room from the lobby. I thought about the term avant-garde, which means, according to Merriam-Webster, "an intelligentsia that develops new or experimental concepts especially in the arts". I tend to go into everything -every concert, performance, art exhibition or film- wanting to like it. With those thoughts, I settled in and waited for the show to begin.  

Two hours later, I left feeling a little empty. I found the play to be reflective of modern life: strange, dissonant, nonsensical, hollow. If in this case art is acting as a mirror, reflecting life but not providing any lifeline, I wondered if the creators were somehow shirking their end of the deal. Perhaps I had just forgotten that avant-garde works can be a bit, well, difficult.   

The Confessionals were the most accessible acts, with their descriptions of common daily activities guiltily recounted from behind a wicker booth, while on the screen beyond a loop of cable TV news played with all its visually cacophonous boxes, screen crawls and rapid-fire camera edits. I found myself trying to focus my attention on the confessor, fighting and sometimes losing against the irresistible urge to look at the screen. 

Katherine Marty was the de facto star of "Flowers", with her dramatic spoken word performances. Even though in spots she struck me as a bit overly dramatic, she nonetheless tapped into something strong and true, conveying herself very effectively to the audience. I found myself forgetting time and place during her piece For Official Use Only, in which she injected her poetry and body movements into the reading of what sounded like a government-style document recounting sanctioned torture methods.

Music had a strong presence in the show: sometimes in the background, other times as the focus. The Cangue League Orchestra accented the onstage pieces nicely and also played in a featured interlude.  However, to my layperson’s ears, there is a certain point where music is no longer music but merely noise.  During their set they crossed over that line a few times, into the arena of what I suppose is called experimental music. The band DAST played midway through the show, their sonorous electric guitars and vocal stylings (there were no discernable words) sort of haunting the audience. I would have liked to see them better as they played, but the room was darkened with a Stan Brakhage film playing behind them, and all but the vocalist had their backs to the audience during most of the set.

As the mastermind of Cangue League, Gary Perrine strikes me as an enigmatic figure. I can't decide if he's more in the vein of kindly father or sly shaman. During the final major act of the evening, he sat in the middle of the stage. Figures dressed in boxes with small doors on the front, blindfolded with sheer red handkerchiefs and nude from the waist up (an x over each nipple for the women), walked up in turn and stood on either side of him. While singing, he took a flower from the door in one box and placed it in the opposite box. Soon after, stageblood ran down the legs of the recipient then he or she collapsed. Another person walked out to take the place of each fallen one. It was a metaphorically and visually rich finale. 

It was not until later that night at home, as I was on the verge of falling asleep, that the overall meaning of Flowers gelled for me. It was meant as a funeral service for humanity, a documentation of what we are, what we have become and how we’ve lost our way. Nothing made sense because nothing we do makes sense. But somehow the play made sense to me now, and with that thought I fell asleep.

Disclosure: Katherine Marty is an acquaintance, whom I've made drawings of and seen perform at Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School / Shimmy Shack events. I recently donated money to the Super Happy Funtime Burlesque Tour Bus Fund (she's a performer with the group). Hugo Claudin of the Cangue League Orchestra is a friend and hopefully will remain so despite my dislike of experimental music.

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I went to see Flowers the night before, and I walked out of Dog Story not getting any sense of what was going on besides the emptiness of human existence. I agree with you that some moments were overly dramatic, and it bothered me that as the de facto star, Katherine didn't have her own poetry memorized. The pauses to steal glances at her printouts and some scenes with other performers made it hard to keep up my suspension of disbelief enough to extract meaning.

I had not even thought of a funeral, though, and I'm glad you made that point. From that perspective, I feel like I can reevaluate Flowers in a way that makes it cohesive for me.