Baryshnikov Arts Center

BAC Stories

BAC Story by Tara Sheena

Peter Mills Weiss + Julia Mounsey

In the Space, On Its Feet

I was a little scared of meeting Peter and Julia. Or, uneasy. Or, something. It turns out, if you choose to meet someone through the mainstream media portrayal of them, you may find yourself confused or, at least, apprehensive. I formed this unfounded fear after reading the coverage of their previous show, [50/50] old school animation.

Julia, especially, is portrayed as a sociopathic, unfeeling millennial, who deadpans ominous stories about harming close friends.

Of course, that’s a performance. This is real life. But, if I’ve learned anything about Peter and Julia in our short time together, it’s that those modes steep together in ways that are hilarious and biting, in the same breath. They tread steadily along a path, shaken by nature, that’s been blurred and blundered by autobiography and theatricality. They keep circling the cul-de-sac of houses situated between reality and hyperbole. They don’t necessarily meet in the middle or towards any point: they keep circling.

I think a different kind of writer would use this as the moment to dispel the frank mythologies and monolithic understandings of them and their work: Playwrights! They have feelings, too! But, I am not interested in upholding any single image of them or treating my peek into their process as fully able to magnify their unique prism. Part of that is because they have been working on this new piece, while you were partying, for two years and, in some ways, have barely cracked the surface. Part of that is because — though they gave me a glimpse into their rehearsal process, sent me videos, and a script to read — I don’t know if it’s a worthy exercise to attempt to synthesize it here. Perhaps, (I think) it’s beyond synthesis. Part of that is because it’s so boring and unoriginal to reduce artists, these artists, to the sum of their parts. I won’t do it.

At a certain point in our initial conversation, Peter remarks that the best version of Hamlet he could ever see would be someone who has lived Hamlet’s exact life: a melancholy prince with an unsparing, violent uncle who is visited by ghosts in Elsinore and is plagued by his own inability to act. Well, literalness aside, it works better as conceptual conceit: we have to believe that the nature and nurture and happenstance of life make a difference. Not to say that other versions can’t be as compelling or magical, but there is something underlying there that would feed the work beyond the premise of talent or practice or the politics of representation, which, we agree, are important, too. Maybe, he suggests, another example is the recent performance of actor Emily Davis in Half Straddle’s Is This A Room (which, I brag to them, I’ve seen twice). For the record, Emily is an incredible actor, but: “Did you know Emily grew up near where Reality [Winner, the real-life whistleblower the play is based on] grew up?,” Peter says. “It feeds it. It has to.”

while you were partying is a stinging, disarming series of dialogues and monologues. It is structured, essentially, as a table read. This is due, in part, to the fact that Peter and Julia don’t really fuck with sets, props, or costumes too much. There is enough to deal with in the language and movement; they don’t really need a lighting change. In fact, anything more here carries the danger of distracting (or allowing an audience a respite) from this enclosed world, situated at a table, that feels both real and outlandish.

In addition to Julia (“Julia”) and Peter (“Mom”), they are joined by Brian (“Brian”) and Brett (“Todd”). Brian and Brett both come from comedy backgrounds, in real life, and Julia and Peter met them both by going to stand up open mics around the city. They tell me that Brian sometimes has his mom Skype into his sets to effects both hilarious and uncomfortable. Brett used to host a public access television show which he was very devoted to and, in their telling, seemed like if Nathan For You came to the community center. It feeds it, it has to.

There’s already a “self-creation aspect" to their work, Peter says, that helps them devise in the room instead of pander to any prompts or scripts. In fact, they never usually enter the room with a script. The process becomes a layering of improvising, questioning, scripting, memorizing, improvising, forgetting, remembering, re-memorizing, doing it all, throwing it all away, and starting over, not necessarily in that order. They share a version of this during their final residency showing; three discrete sections that were once nearly memorized but, one day, in a hungover-weekend-rehearsal-haze, they rebelled against that instinct and enacted the entire work from memory. The result is this performance — right here, right now — which carries the knowledge that it could warp significantly the next time and the next time.

The centerpiece of this showing is an extended scene between Mom and Todd, wherein Todd comes to audition for the role of “Wizard” under Mom’s cold, perturbed direction: “Face front, Todd. Look at the audience, Todd.” Todd is committed and humiliated, all at once, a sensation that weighs on the room more and more as he goes. What starts out as a triumphant imitation of the kookiest Harry Potter World wizard you could imagine sees Todd shrinking more and more, tracing from an ebullient British accent to a slow, quiet, dude-drawl.

This is… really funny. Seeing the ways this man —  a cis, white man named Todd —  is totally betrayed by his own abilities is entirely satisfying. In some ways, this illustrates closely the questions around toxic aggression and violence that emerge in this work. Todd’s own self-betrayal is the ultimate antagonist, rendering a confident performance to shreds through a slow process that mimics a public shaming of sorts. We could name the underlying ruse something akin to toxic masculinity, though, Julia is quick to point out, anger is usually masculinized whether we like it or not. Toxic masculinity, the concept (or buzzword) as we know it, “doesn’t really need me to engage with it, because it’s been diagnosed,” she adds.

Where Todd is bumbling and dorky, Brian is sullen and stoic. He is before us as an agent of Julia’s body in death. In fact, he is brought before us to tell us the story of Julia’s body. He listens to lines fed to him from his iPhone headphones — a literal act of transmission from the afterlife — and informs us of her past trauma, involving a tight pelvis and her inability to enjoy sexual intercourse because of how much pain it causes her. So much so that she has to go to physical therapy but then has to stop going because her insurance runs out. She tells us of the drugs she needs to remain clear-headed, the ways she’s been shamed by men, confused as to why his penis doesn’t easily fit into her tight, unwelcome vagina. But, he/she tells us: “I am not interested in confession, I am interested in healing.”

Julia comes back as Julia towards the end of this sharing. She comes back to tell us things Brian couldn’t. She comes back to tell us that she is a “dangerous soul” and if we see her in real life we should kill her (“...if you can”). For some reason, we need to hear it directly from her, the source. It harkens back to the same, sociopathic Julia I was convinced of in [50/50] old school animation. It reminds me of the ways self-harm centers itself in this work and, with all the acknowledgement of masculinized aggression, it is Julia who is calling the shots, leading the construction, an imploding orbit placing her as its central planet. We are led to believe that, if she didn’t orchestrate everything, at least she is involved in determining its fate.

“While you were preparing to die, I was preparing to fight,” she says, riffing off the meme for which this work gets its title. Though the language is caustic, I have to believe her experiences are baked into the cake I am tasting here. I have to believe that this stems from a shred of truth, somewhere, somehow, circling the cul-de-sac over and over. I have to believe what she is telling me, because it’s too real not to be real. I have to believe that it makes a difference… It feeds it, it has to.

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Tara Sheena is a dancer and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. As a performer, she has collaborated on recent projects with Catherine Galasso, Ivy Baldwin. Gillian Walsh, Leyya Tawil, Nadia Tykulsker, Ursula Eagly, Lindsey Dietz Marchant, stormy budwig, and Faye Driscoll for the forthcoming film, Shirley. Her latest writing, Capital-D Dance, is a chapbook collaboration with artist Katie Dean, which you can purchase on Etsy! She was born in Detroit and graduated from the University of Michigan with a BFA in Dance and BA in English in 2011.


Photos by Maria Baranova