When Hollywood legends die, they leave behind a body of work that’s almost more important to those left behind than the legend’s actual life story. The movies of Garbo, or Monroe, or whomever are almost like a magic trunk of forgotten costumes. They can be pulled out, dusted off, and inhabited for a time. The characters and emotions left there on the celluloid are like a band of sequins, and we can rest inside the sparkle until the final musical swell that marks the end of the film.
In Last Meadow, Miguel Gutierrez has used the work of James Dean as a starting point. He’s opened the trunk, pulled out the costumes, and taken a seam ripper to everything he could get his hands on. The resulting reassembled ensemble is at times ill-fitting, elegant, lyrical, ugly, and beautiful.
Over the course of the 90 minute Technicolored feat of endurance, Gutierrez and fellow performers Michelle Boule and Tarek Halaby push themselves to their physical limits as they scream, convulse, and dance through source material pulled from Dean’s East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant.
Easily the best thing about the performance is Boule’s mimicry of James Dean. The show begins with a drunken monologue from Giant as Jet the troubled oil tycoon mumbles a banquet speech in an empty room, slobbering through a tangled litany of defiance and remorse. Boule’s body almost seems to be inhabited by Dean—she’s easy in his looseness and slouch—and, when we see her moments later as the shy Cal from Rebel Without a Cause, her puppy dog eyes and hunched shoulders are an uncanny copy of the singular actor.
Boule is a good focal point for Last Meadow. It’s easy to cling to her as the action becomes more chaotic and diffuse, breaking down time and time again. It’s difficult to unpack everything that’s going on in this show. It’s incredibly dynamic, at times leaving the audience at a complete loss for what to do. The experience of Last Meadow is what I imagine it would be like to watch all three of these James Dean films, simultaneously, at full volume, in a rough gay bar. It’s easy to be distracted by playing “name that film” as the performance progresses, but that fun soon fades.
There were times, during the more grating potions of the performance (Gutierrez with the head of a microphone stuffed in his mouth, moaning, laughing and screaming while the soundtrack jangled loudly in accompaniment), where I was certain that I’d been somehow duped, because the whole thing made so little sense. But then the action would coalesce and become a bit more lucid before spinning off wildly once more.
I wasn’t surprised when I read Gutierrez’s reluctant explanation of Last Meadow as I attempted to pull myself together with a whiskey or two after the show. Stroke, brain trauma, irrigation, attempting to organize sensory confusion all played a part in the creation of this raucous piece.
It’s a fever dream of James Dean’s America, where everything is broken and falling to pieces, and the dreamer has no choice but try to put it back together the best he can. In this way the erotic undertones of gushing oil wells are amplified, the desires of Plato (from Rebel Without a Cause) are allowed a voice in the darkness, and the pent up, regimented exuberance of Dean and America are allowed to explode in sweaty glory to the pumping rhythms of a dance club anthem.
What does it all mean? I’m not sure. I haven’t been able to figure that out—both in terms of this challenging show, or my country for that matter. But I know the next time I watch any of these films, Last Meadow will be standing there, smirking at me in its altered costume, and I won’t be able to do anything about it.
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