I walked into Nicole Beutler‘s 1: Songs knowing next to nothing about it. I simply hadn’t read and absorbed anything about it. Much as I like watching a performance in such a virginal state, I rather wish I had boned up a bit more on what I was about to experience. Why? Because it wasn’t until after the performance was over, specifically during the post-show talk, that I began to warm to it and understand much better where it was coming from.
The set-up: five mikes grouped together downstage and a raised light beaming down from the back. Behind a fuzzy screen image that gradually comes into focus, but not before a young woman (initially rendered faceless because of the lack of front light and, in effect, reduced to a silhouette) has arrived onstage. She says hello and begins the first of ten songs that could be said to give dramatic voice to aspects of womanhood. Each song is associated with a name projected on the screen and dated: e.g., Gretchen (1789) or Ophelia (1977) or Sarah (1999) or Charlie (1940) or Medea (480 BC).
Given some of those examples I figured there was a literary link. What I may’ve been too careless to read in advance, or too thick to realise, was that with a couple of exceptions the short texts were all taken from theatre history. We’re talking, say, Woyzeck and Faust, Jean Cocteau’s the Human Voice and two versions of Antigone (Sophocles and Jean Anouilh). And the exceptions? Charlotte Bronte, represented by Jane Eyre, and Charlie Chaplin via his classic film The Great Dictator. But, again, I didn’t know all this and thus watched – and listened to - 1:Songs minus a full grasp of its pretty rich handful of sources. What I actually saw onstage was a severely stylish young woman (Ibelisse Guardia Ferragutti) in a tight blue dress and heels. With her red lips, thin frame and sober sense of purpose there was something vaguely vampiric about her. She was both cool and febrile, although for my taste neither quite enough of one or the other.
The show, as I later learnt, was conceived as a cross between a tragedy and a pop concert; knowing this I could better discern that Ferragutti is probably an actor first and a singer second, which helped me understand some of my ambivalence about how she handled the material. She tended to deliver the texts, musicalized often as catchily serviceable, clubby electronica by the composer Gary Shepherd, with a throat-shredding immediacy. Sometimes she’d suddenly sever herself from a song, at one point abruptly finishing one with the ironic comment ‘Game over.’ (Beutler spoke afterwards of a conscious desire to break whatever emotion was being conjured.) Ferragutti’s movements were tailored to the songs and, within these limitations, fairly strong. ‘Watch me….vanish,’ she declared, and then proceeded to jerk in place with one arm raised and the other out to the side. At another point she momentarily mimicked the automaton she railed against becoming. Less successful was an early spate of what looked like swatting at flies while surfing. Later Ferragutti’s fractured Everywoman so missed the man who left her (this was actually the Cocteau fragment) that she repeatedly begged God to make him at least return her phone calls; this was effectively achieved, too, with the performer gazing up at a raised mike as if imploring heaven itself.
The ranting got to me, although for the wrong reasons. Sensitive-eared soul that I am, I resent being shouted at. Ferragutti did this, also growling and barking while positioning herself behind the thin mike stands as if they were the bars of a cage. I don’t object to bouts of inarticulate rage except when such a thing causes me physical pain. I’m also not a big fan of a lot bright lights flashing in my eyes, as happened here in a brief and unfortunate flare-up of meretricious flash as Ferragutti thrashed around and lobbed about the mike stands. For my part, I don’t like being blinded any more than I appreciate being deafened. After these blows came a softer, ’70s sound with a kitsch shoop-shoop-doo-waa, shoo-bee-doo-bee refrain as the actress apologised via a milder character spouting Chaplin’s utopically cautionary text.
Still, that all was not lost on me is thanks in large measure to the aforementioned post-show chat. This helped turn what felt like a pretty unrewarding experience into something of more positive and lasting value. What I gleaned listening to Beutler and Ferragutti was that the latter was meant to be almost channelling the handful of mainly classical texts, allowing the words to pass through her. Well, okay, fine. I like that and ‘get’ it, too. Beutler also spoke of personifications of lust and pleasure. I can’t sat I picked up much of either from 1:Songs, but never mind. The texts (handed out to us before the show, but which I failed to have given even a cursory skim) have subsequently made for a quick and fairly resonant read, allowing me to see that for all its supposedly raw intensity this show is more calculatedly detached than it might first appear. It’s also obliquely feminist, minus a flag-waving capital F and all the better for it. Some people loved the show, even being moved to tears. I ended up respecting it.
Ah, I forgot to mention how the fuzzy film image eventually became clear enough for me to recognise it as the great Anna Magnani in an unforgettably, even iconically shattering scene from Roberto Rossellini’s classic Rome Open City. Among my first thoughts were ‘How dare they exploit this film?’ I later changed my tune, glad to be reminded of the impact of the film as a whole and this gut-wrenching bit of it in particular.