What a marvel of craftsmanship; a regular Deacon’s Masterpiece!
As the soloist in the spotlight, dancer/choreographer Shay Kuebler has plenty of company – mostly inanimate – on the Firehouse Theatre stage for the world premiere of his original muscle-bound farrago, Feasting on Famine.
First off, there’s his trusty iron hoss, a high-end exercycle that’s rolled out as soon as the houselights dim and remains throughout the one-hour show. Tech wizards Eric Chad and Jaylene Pratt rigged up the machine to not only feedback its rider’s vital signs onto a cyclorama readout, but even to tweak the intensity of the spotlights and the pulse of the back-beat. At one point Kuebler goes so far as to whirl, hoist and caress the bike in a lyrically balletic pas de deux.
Other props also seem to take on a life of their own: a gleaming veterinary syringe, a ruby laser strobe, a pill-laden hospital cart, a couple of rotisserie chickens, a safety razor. Each item finds its peculiarly grotesque use.
The strobe sputters at crotch level. He plunges the horse needle into his gut like a hara-kiri dagger. Two poker-faced stagehands (Philomena Sondergaard and Koh McRadu) souse him head-to-toe with aerosol lather, which he then rakes off with masturbatory flicks of the razor. He dives face-first into the chickens, sputtering meat shards from his glistening jowls. The pills get stashed in his jockstrap, from which he scoops them by the handful to munch like popcorn, twitching with escalating frenzy after each successive dose.
Such antics aim to “question the ethics…of health and fitness as a business,” as Kuebler writes in his playbill intro. It’s all about “obsession and addiction, as well as commodification, corporatisation and mediatisation.”
To drive the point home, he mimics a body-building competition, grinning and grimacing as he recaps the prescribed poses – “Double Biceps,” “Lateral Spread,” “Side Chest,” “Triceps,” “Abs & Thighs” – in a creepy cross between a pedigreed dog show and a cattle auction.
Ironically enough, for an industry critic, he presents a pretty buff product of the gym. His sculpted torso strikes my untrained eye, at least, as quite blue-ribbon-worthy, although he claims (in a post-show talk) that he had to dial back his training regimen lest he wind up too muscle-bound to dance.
He sure seems to have survived with his dancing chops intact, judging from the wild athleticism and hyperkinetic grace of his perpetual motion onstage. He’s pretty convincing, too, as a screen actor. He stars in a couple of spoof commercials that scroll up on the cyclorama behind him, touting such nostrums as laxatives and testosterone supplements. Each ad ends with the usual breathless string of dire caveats and contra-indications.
When he’s not in a state of sweat-slicked semi-undress, his gym wear presents a riot of product placement logos to underscore how the fitness addict's body is no longer his own. Rather (in Kuebler’s words, again) “the body becomes a corporation where body fat, water, calories, muscle mass, vascularity are the measures for profit and loss margins.”
But it’s a mug’s game, unwinnable at last. In the end, Kuebler remounts his exercycle hoss, pedalling ever more frenetically. An offstage voice barks Positive Thinking bromides and snippets of Dylan Thomas poetry in the incongruously accusative voice of a drill sergeant, “personal trainer” or “Prosperity Gospel” preacher.
The cyclorama streams and the house amps boom; lighting designer James Proudfoot, video artist Josh Hite and sound designer Kate De Larme join forces to create an illusion of the bike hurtling through a whooshing, swirling vortex of cosmic space.
And then it all goes dark and quiet. Entropy reasserts itself. Kuebler slumps in his saddle as the backscreen biometric readouts flatline.
End of the wonderful one-hoss Shay.
Logic is logic. That’s all I say.