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IMPRESSIONS: "Unstill Life" at Arts On Site

IMPRESSIONS: "Unstill Life" at Arts On Site

Published on March 21, 2024
Rinde Eckert and Margaret Jenkins. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Performers and Creators: Rinde Eckert, Risa Jaroslow*, Margaret Jenkins, Jon Kinzel, and Vicky Shick*
Lighting: Kathy Kaufmann
Sound: Rinde Eckert and Jon Kinzel
Text:  Rinde Eckert & Speaker: Kathleen Chalfant
Producer: David Parker and The Bang Group
The bicoastal project will be repeated in the Bay Area on March 21 - 24, 2024 (tickets and info)

*Disclosure: Writer is  longtime friends with both Shick and Jaroslow

Unstill Life was like a still life painting. However, instead of a table, vase, and flowers, etched onto the canvas of the small Arts on Site studio were Margaret JenkinsRisa Jaroslow, Vicky ShickJon Kinzel and Rinde Eckert. All but Kinzel are over 70, and each had a burnished, warm presence. Tender with touch, yet task-like, they unlocked the mysteries of objects.

The changeability of objects was a recurring theme. It started with Jenkins sitting nonchalantly, swatting a flat red disc between her knees. When she lifted the disc, it suddenly puffed up into a round, spherical curiosity which we soon realized was a red paper lantern.

Without a lot of hoopla, this group created a delightful sense of anticipation. While Eckert played a harmonica center stage, Jaroslow slowly dragged herself sideways on the floor toward him. Upon reaching him and strapping a heretofore hidden set of bells onto his ankle, he immediately started stomping in a strong rhythm.

Jon Kinzel and  Vicky Shick in Unstill Life. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Shick used her head as either a nurturing or aggressive appendage. She sidled up to Jaroslow entwining her head around Jaroslow’s neck in a lolling moment of intimacy. Later she suddenly butted her head against Kinzel’s thigh as though to stop him in his tracks. The thudding sound almost elicited a giggle, but the sense of humor, in general, was so subtle that the response was more bemusement than laughter.

Sometimes Kinzel and Eckert squared off with a more raw, blunt kind of energy. While the women were more whimsical, the two men — also the sound creators (Eckert with instruments and voice, Kinzel with a quietly rumbling soundtrack) — appeared more functional in their movements.

Each performer seemed just as curious about each other as about objects, creating a sense of gentle isolation. There were times when a convergence almost happened but didn’t. Kinzel and Eckert walked toward the audience but veered off as though they had both simultaneously changed their minds — funny, but, again, nothing in this show made you laugh out loud. Bits like this just elicited a soft smile.

Jon Kinzel, Vicky Schick (center) and Risa Jaroslow (seated). Photo: Julieta Cervantes

The actions were so spare that vigorous moments stood out. Jenkins and Eckert launched into a stream of speedy, eccentric gestures for hands and face. Jaroslow ran in a wide circle. Kinzel and Eckert shook iPhones, while raucous sound emerged. Eckert, sitting with his back to us while playing the accordion, suddenly unleashed a full-throated vocalization that was spookily beautiful. These were isolated events, as if a stone thrown into a pool made no ripples.

After a wordless 30 or 40 minutes, the voice of actress Kathleen Chalfant was heard intoning a litany of instructions attributed to Eckert. Lines like “No observation, no witticism, no cynicism or generosity” were reminiscent of Yvonne Rainer’s famous “No Manifesto.”

But the statement that most closely describes Unstill Life — or any life for that matter — was this: “A step is taken toward something and away from something else.” (I learned later that this text was compiled by Eckert after a phone call in which the five collaborators discussed their preferences.)

Risa Jaroslow (running in foreground ) with Rinde Eckert supported by Vicky Schick (background). Photo: Julieta Cervantes

During this recitation, Kinzel began deconstructing the red lantern that had occupied Jenkins in the opening scene. He eviscerated it, leaving a trail of wires and twisted paper on the floor. It was the perfect ending, a delayed answer to the question posed in the beginning: What does Jenkins have in her hand?  

Unstill Life leaves a trail too. Much like a painting one contemplates upon leaving it behind, the work of this corps of old masters continues to affect us long after we leave their studio.

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