Zona Pellucida. 2boystv.
Sala Villa Villa, Centro Cultural Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina. June 12, 2007.

Ramón H. Rivera-Servera | Northwestern University

Audience members enter the theatre and encounter a makeshift proscenium structure reminiscent of a puppet theatre fully lit center stage. Growls are heard as the stage goes dark. The voice of Katherine Hepburn as Ms. Violet Venable in the 1959 film version of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer emerges in the darkness. “Such a pretty name for a disease,” says Violet as she describes Catherine Holly’s insanity after the death of her cousin. “Sounds like a rare flower doesn’t it? Night-blooming dementia praecox. Madness, sir, or obsession…memory. She lacerates herself with memory—visions, hallucination.” At the end of Violet’s account, lights come on slowly from the back illuminating the silhouette of a woman (Stephen Lawson in costume) in a mimed shadow theatre. As the overture to the opera La Sonnambula by Vincenzo Bellini plays on, the woman gently rocks a baby in her arms and puts her to sleep playing up with large hand movements making the actions not only readable behind the screen but humorously campy. The few bars of the overture lead to an aria as the performer reappears, this time wearing a wolf mask as she slowly, but menacingly, approaches the baby in the crib and snags her from sight in a sudden exit. The initial motherly character reappears and, noticing the child’s absence, she gesticulates in grand motions of frustration and despair paralleling the crescendo of the operatic duet. As the song approximates its end and singers are involved in melodic harmony, the desperate mother slowly works herself into a reclined position, waving ever so slightly in the direction of her disappeared child’s last location on the crib. Her body becomes undistinguishable with the shadows at the lower section of the scrim. Just her undulating hand, articulately performing the trauma, is that which remains as the lights fade. In this opening scene it is gesture that serves as the enduring memory and response to the trauma of disappearance. And it is precisely the historic repertoires of queer gesturality what triumphs in 2boystv’s performance piece Zona Pellucida.

Stephen Lawson in Zona Pellucida.

Photo: Marlène Ramírez-Cancio.

In medical terminology, zona pellucida refers to the elastic membrane that covers the outer layer of the ovum. It mediates between the enclosed genetic material of the egg and the competing sperm that must cross this border in order for fertilization to occur. The zona pellucida represents a primordial contact zone through which genetic materials from two organisms re-mix into the DNA of a third, emergent one. As the title to the Montreal-based troupe’s piece, this term may refer to the interstitial space constituted in the event’s circulation of theatrical, musical, and cinematic archives arranged into a 45-minute tour-de-force display of queer aesthetics. But Zona Pellucida seems not only concerned with digging into the extravagant repertoires of queer theatrical and filmic sensibilities, but also with championing the embodied realm of gesture as a strategy in the face of trauma.

The approach to queer gesturality, including camp, by co-creators Aaron Pollard and Stephen Lawson seems much more invested in its deployment as a conduit to affectual experiences of queer belonging and survival and less on gesture as choreographies of immediate action. As Aaron Pollard describes, the piece: “started out by looking at questions of accusation and guilt, particularly as they are manifest in German expressionist cinema. We were interested in looking at the psychic process of a character who somehow becomes laden with guilt, regardless of whether the accusations leveled are true or false.”1 Echoing German kammerspielfilm, Zona Pellucida explores the worlds of guilt and madness in a non-linear series of actions that slowly construct an emotional mis-en-scene rather than narrative intelligibility. It matters little in this instance whether the accusations leveled or the source of guilt are true as long as the emotional experience is properly conveyed in performance. The search for the experience of guilt as represented in the theatrical and cinematic arts led to genres where the icons of culpability were highly gendered as female. An exploration of these characters in turn yielded a wealth of instances—archived performances—where particularly excessive theatricalities coded both as pathological mental states and queer affect. And here gesture is paramount as the action where the mnemonic transference of queerness resides in Zona Pellucida. Stephen Lawson beautifully engages these prior performances, appearing equally stunning as the dame in distress or the cabaret seductress, always paying attention to minute gestures and facial expressions, and signaling beyond them in rupturing winks and off-balance steps that mark their conflicted appropriation as gay camp. This performance functions as a membrane that facilitates this critical convergence between gendered characterization in film and the performing arts, and a queer affect.

The piece, performed almost entirely in lip-syncing, blends the precise gesture and technical finesse of artists such as Lypsinka with the raw experimental queerings of the likes of Ethyl Eichelberger. In Zona Pellucida, 2boystv moves beyond their traditional 5-10 minute cabaret act format to develop a sustained musing into the queerly intersecting worlds of opera, theatre, and film. And, what might these worlds have in common? Certainly, a queer cult tradition around the diva. And it is precisely in the teasing of the gendered spectacular nature of this figure as a prominent element for Euro-American queer imaginaries where 2boystv manages to engage in a drag performance that is sophisticated in its honoring of the women who labored within the industry’s conflicted gender scripts.

Zona Pellucida. 2boys.tv.

Photo: Marlène Ramírez-Cancio.

The stage serves as the surface membrane through which the performance duo approaches the diva in distress as foundational archetype to queer gestural traditions, from opera to Hollywood to drag. This inter-textual repertoire of Zona Pellucida includes the fairytale tradition of the wolf (here circulated as a symbol of internal turmoil); Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes' Opening Night; a monologue, pieced together from various Anne Baxter lines in All About Eve; Bette Davis in All About Eve and The Nanny; Shirley McClain and Mirian Hopkins in The Children’s Hour; La Sonnambula, which continues to weave in and out of the piece; and Carmina Burana. This wealth of materials and strategies is also felt in the very membranic devises deployed in performance: from the small book that opens to hold juxtaposed projections of the actor at the height of lip-syncing La Sonnambula and the wolf, always approaching but never quite ending the insufferable journey, to the multi-layered curtains offering depth of image in the live projections and facilitating interactions between the live actor and life size projections on the stage.

In her recent theorization of the DNA of performance, Diana Taylor has discussed the ways in which performance archives of trauma are re-activated and re-deployed through live enactment.2 Equally invested in the correspondences between the archive and the repertoire of gendered trauma, 2boystv’s Zona Pellucida reactivates, in performance, an archive of hysterical exuberance that offers both a historical critique of the gendered nature of pathological characterization in film and theatre and an exquisite display of queer theatricality. Throughout the performance, heroines—both recorded and embodied in the live event—engage in a disorienting, excessive descent into madness and guilt to arrive at a deliciously campy chase to continually looped sound clips of screaming from Suddenly Last Summer culminating in a burning scene to be performed to the sounds Carmina Burana. At every turn, Zona Pellucida exploits these extreme circumstances and performance repertoires to mark dynamics of representation that are, to say the least, unbalanced. However, also at every instance, queer gestures serve as the final interpretive devices, transforming the archive into a bank of feelings. In the end, and despite the complications of accusation and guilt, of closets and persecutions that haunt films like Suddenly Last Summer and The Children’s Hour, it is the power of queer gesture and affect that remains.

Ramón H. Rivera-Servera is Assistant Professor at the Department of Performance Studies at Northwestern University.

1 Aaron Pollard, correspondence with the author. August 2007.

2 Diana Taylor, “DNA of Performance: Political Hauntology,” in Cultural Agency in the Americas, ed. Doris Sommer (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006): 52-81.