Despite Danztheatre’s avant-garde pretensions, Yellow Wallpaper sticks

If the phrases “Gorilla Tango Theater” and “Wicker Park” conjure up pretentious avant-garde hipsters, withhold judgment for a minute.

By Nora Sorena Casey

[img id=”80783″ align=”alignleft”] If the phrases “Gorilla Tango Theater” and “Wicker Park” conjure up pretentious avant-garde hipsters, withhold judgment for a minute. Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble’s The Yellow Wallpaper, a dance performance based on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, begins with two solo performances that demand a tolerant and open mind. It is the novel blend of performance art and dance incorporated into the show that keeps The Yellow Wallpaper from turning into an oft-repeated tale of a misunderstood and repressed Victorian-era woman.

The Yellow Wallpaper is based on Gilman’s own struggles with postpartum depression. In the story, the nameless female protagonist is confined to her upstairs room on the orders of her husband, a physician who believes she suffers from “temporary nervous depression.” The story hints that part of the problem is that the protagonist has just given birth to a child. She records the effects of seclusion on her mental health in a series of increasingly unhinged journal entries, many of which dwell obsessively on the yellow wallpaper in her room. Gradually, the wallpaper becomes the center of her spiraling descent into madness.

The domestic drama in The Yellow Wallpaper has the familiar tone of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, in which the protagonist’s husband lovingly dismisses her as a “silly little goose” even as she begins to lose her sanity. As the domestic relationships remain static throughout the drama, the compelling action in both the story and the performance is between the woman and the yellow wallpaper.

“I never saw a worse paper in my life. It commits every possible artistic sin,” the protagonist declares at the beginning of the play. Very early on, the wallpaper transforms into a malignant emotional presence, personified in the play by four women dressed like a Greek chorus who emerge from behind the paper walls to interact with the protagonist. They echo her words and the words of her husband as they dance and creep around, giving expression to the protagonist’s internal pain. She comes to relate to the wallpaper as she grows emotionally distant from the outside world and her family, and is finally convinced that behind the yellow wallpaper lie other trapped women.

Gilman’s intent in writing The Yellow Wallpaper was to help other women suffering from depression and raise awareness about the complexity of her condition. “It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from going crazy, and it worked,” she wrote.

The Ensemble shares this goal, deliberately presenting the play during National Depression Awareness month. Danztheatre is a non-profit organization that crafts its work and style around socially conscious productions. Their second staging of The Yellow Wallpaper began with a discussion of how performances like theirs can increase awareness of early women’s rights efforts and spur activism.

The transition from short story to performance may have been difficult, but it gives the Danztheatre Ensemble the opportunity to explore storytelling through monologue, voice-over, and modern dance. The trajectory of the protagonist’s depression is fairly straightforward, but its articulation through the multiple voices of the wallpaper chorus is interesting to watch.

Yes, the production does vindicate many avant-garde prejudices that are especially associated with modern dance. But the blend of physical theater and literature is the main focus of the performance and works to its advantage in this production. The strong literary text gives a focus to the more abstract movement of the play, and the use of dance saves the story from lapsing into cliché.