James Dean: sexy, rebellious, sensitive, androgynous and queer. He made only three films and died at the age of 24, but his legend hasn’t faded in the 50-plus years since his death. This is evident in Miguel Gutierrez’s production Last Meadow, a scrambled deconstruction of the myth of James Dean.
Last Meadow has three dancers reinterpreting dialogue and movement from Dean’s films (Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden and Giant) and dissecting them in a way that reveals their artifice and their ultimate lack of meaning. Michelle Boulé plays Dean, donning a wig and the signature red jacket. She manages to embody Dean’s masculinity at times, and his effeminate side at others. Opposite Boulé is Tarek Halaby, hairy-chested and scruffy, in a dress and blouse.
“It’s not drag or a comment on drag. It’s like dressing up,” Gutierrez said in an interview with 2Bmag. The gender switch in the casting doesn’t seem to be only presenting a queer aesthetic, but rather is showing how Dean’s identity, and not just his sexual identity, is ambiguous, contradictory and open to myriad interpretations.
Gutierrez’s deconstruction of the myth of James Dean, however, isn’t for the purpose of offering, or even distorting, meaning; it does not tell us anything we don’t already know. “I even accepted the idea that this piece might not lead anywhere,” Gutierrez says, “that it might be a therapeutic exercise.” Maybe he’s right; maybe it doesn’t lead anywhere. But does it have to? The myth of James Dean, after all, doesn’t carry a unified narrative – he’s a figure, an icon, a symbol and a stand-in. But for what, exactly, is unclear. In the same way, Last Meadow is a series of mutated references, and what they refer to will depend on what is recognized in them.
In this way, however, the audience’s experience depends too much on their familiarity with Dean’s films. If a particular tableau isn’t recognized as being from Rebel Without a Cause, does it have any other meaning? Or if the audience hasn’t seen East of Eden, does the line of dialogue repeated ad nauseum have the same effect? It still serves to highlight the artifice of Hollywood mythmaking, and of the show we are seeing, but this is something we already understand.
Then there is the second half of the show, where James Dean is all but left behind and Last Meadow turns into a metatheatrical rant. Boulé calls out dance moves as they are performed; the dancers strip out of their costumes and inexplicably run through the audience half-naked. One dancer actually steps on my foot and yells “Sorry!”
To its credit, Last Meadow is anything but restrained. Gutierrez and his dancers give us a little bit of everything: there are musical numbers, monologues, audience interaction and even an intermission of sorts (for the actors, not the audience). By the end, the dancers have flailed themselves into a frenzy, sweating in their underwear, exhausted. I have never seen three performers work so hard for something so elusive.
Last Meadow is at the Conservatoire d’art dramatique until June 11. For more information, visit the festival’s website: www.fta.qc.ca