They come along so regularly now, the reports of a crazed, alienated gunman suddenly opening fire in a public place, that it is almost impossible not to take such eruptions of mayhem for granted.
For in a culture where real guns can be as easily obtained as toy ones, and we’ve gotten used to the idea that any troubled person can turn himself into a homicidal commando anywhere, at any moment, how else do we respond to this new normal? Or how do we fight it?
In her new performance piece “The Clay Duke,” noted Seattle choreographer and director Dayna Hanson attempts to explore and deconstruct one such true-life incident. Though the impulse is sincere, the artistry is muddled, repetitive and only fitfully insightful.
Hanson creates a lengthy pastiche of abstracted video images, documentary dialogue and audiotape, music, poetry, choreographed movement, monologues, musings by Anton Chekhov and W.H. Auden, absurdist and animal antics to ruminate on a 2010 shooting by a deranged, frustrated ex-con massage therapist named Clay Duke.
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Duke appeared at a Florida school board meeting during an inane bureaucratic debate about dress code policies. He pulled out a can of red spray paint and sprayed a “V” inside a circle, as in the movie “ V for Vendetta.” Brandishing a gun, the mentally ill Duke told the school board members his wife had lost her job (as a teacher), he had run out of “benefits,” and that he was “going to die today.”
He allowed the women in the room to leave. His remaining male hostages tried to question, reason with, and placate him. The standoff ended with Duke opening fire, getting shot by a security guard and finally fatally shooting himself. No one else was harmed — at least, not physically.
Throughout “The Clay Duke,” Hanson and company re-enact this tragedy, tossing out images and riffs as if hoping some will stick to our psyches and resonate. A few do — the first time we see them.
The two, lanky, look-alike performers (Thomas Graves and Wade Madsen) chillingly move and speak in unison as twin images of Duke. The smug school superintendent (Sarah Rudinoff) jabbers smugly. There are Asian-inflected line dances, anxiety attacks of a woman (Peggy Piacenza) clinging to a purse full of survival tools, references to Charles Bronson movies.
But there’s a lot of pretension and repetition, and little propulsion in “The Clay Duke,” and the good ideas mash up with the bad. Watching it is like sitting through an unedited 90-minute rehearsal process, not the debut of a rigorously sculpted and tempered work.
It is only in the last 15 minutes that the heart of the matter is pierced. In a frenetic whirling of podiums and people, the actors’ dialogue overlaps with the disturbing audiotape of the actual shooting. And as Duke’s widow (played by director Hanson) speaks about her husband’s struggles, her puzzlement, love and resignation dignify his troubled humanity.
One is also struck by a recitation of Auden’s haunting poem “Musee des Beaux Arts,” which reminds us, trenchantly, of how the hustle and bustle of everyday life ultimately numbs us to tragedy. As others in the world are suffering, wrote Auden, “someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.”
What Auden’s poem yearned for was perhaps what Hanson wanted to create: A wake-up call that would stir us to see, to empathize, to respond.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org