Written collectively by the tight ensemble No. 11 Productions from New York, Coosje combines words, music, an art installation, and projections to tell the story of the romantic relationship and artistic partnership of conceptual artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen. As such, the work, served up by DC Fringe on its opening night, was a great way to reflect on art and art making, collaboration, and the importance of taking risks. It’s what Capital Fringe is all about since 2005, stirring up artists and our DC community.
At the top of the show, the audience is told that this is a work about life, death and collaboration and then as if with a wink, “if you don’t get it you’re on to something.” The sound of an old movie projector and the tinkling of a piano begin. Crude black on white drawings appear on a screen then come to life in simple animation. In a corner a big piece of silver-gray cloth is hung from the ceiling draped in folds like a half-collapsed tent.
Actor Steven Conroy introduces himself as Claes Oldenburg with such unaffecting grace, I buy it immediately. The guy seems to be totally mentally absorbed, meandering on the stage as through life making series after series of drawings. Then suddenly Coosje, the critic and art historian, appears while Oldenburg is installing one of his art pieces in a museum. Played by Julie Congress with dark dramatic looks, piercing eyes, and a red slash of a mouth, the woman is riveting – all energy and sharp edges. “The placement,” she says, weighing in on his work, “is not interesting.” He gets it, and she gets him, going on to create a conceptual framework for his ideas, give him courage to realize his visions, and steer his career.
This wavelength in common produced some great iconic pop art works, often the gigantic size of which left the mundane forever imprinted on one’s brain. I remember in Minneapolis at the Walker Art Center,where Oldenburg was a highly featured artist, he created the Spoonbridge and Cherry for its sculpture garden which has become the signature piece representing that city.
In Coosje, the Oldenburg-style celebration of the mundane is symbolized by a giant Green Pear, played live — yes, in a pear suit with green sneakers — by Sina Heiss. She rolls on and off the stage, sings, “floats” on an inner tube in the aisle, and then carries the same prop on stage like a giant doughnut. Somehow for me she represents both the muse and the artistic “offspring” of Claes and Coosje. Maybe Heiss’s singing could be stronger, her diction clearer, but maybe that’s the point of the silliness. Performance art is also often a celebration of the mundane.
Just as the character of Coosje says that what matters to her, that is what she is interested in is when art and the artist come alive in it (a work,) the same goes for the strongest moments of the production. A terrific scene is when the couple is seen playing racketball. Talking the whole while and beading with perspiration, they excite each other as they hammer away at an imaginary ball, driving it out again and again towards the audience. It feels hard, urban, pounding like the art they served up. As artists they come alive in their work.
by No. 11 Productions
at Gallery – Goethe Institut
812 7th Street NW
Washington, DC 20001
Details and tickets
Ryan Emmons has directed the show with a sure sense of the dramatic tension as well as the visual elements. He could still tweak the auditory balance some more. Danny Tieger’s songs don’t yet make a strong enough contribution that they could. Jen Neads’ visual art partners with Enrico de Trizio’s projections well, and I particularly liked how the black and white world on the screen begins adding color, developing in parallel as the artist’s world becomes enriched by his partnership with the woman who became his wife of thirty-two years. Kathleen Blanchard’s creation of the pear costume is just kooky enough to remind us this is Fringe!
Step out of one’s comfort zone and take a bite of this work. You’ll find it juicy and go away thinking about the curious nature of art-making. Is a pear ever just a pear?