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Joe Goode Performance Group

'Maverick Strain' and 'Wonderboy'

by Carmel Morgan

May 1, 2009 -- University of Maryland, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, College Park, Maryland

Joe Goode has personality with a capital “P,” and so does his small troupe of dancers, the Joe Goode Performance Group, which is composed of six dancers plus Goode plus one puppet. Women are in the minority, as there are only two female dancers. Even the puppet, built in the image of a young Joe Goode, is male.

To get things started, Goode stood beneath the stage on the same level as the audience and greeted those assembled like old friends (it was his third trip to the University of Maryland). He chatted casually, cracking occasional jokes and even singing, and made everyone feel very much at home, which was a bit strange considering that it was Goode who was far from his San Francisco home. At any rate, he successfully set the tone for an enjoyable evening of what Goode appropriately and unapologetically calls “dance/theater.”

The group presented two of Goode’s works. First, the group performed excerpts from “Maverick Strain,” a campy cowboy piece choreographed in 1996. “Maverick Strain” evoked the Wild West, with an emphasis on wild. Sassy saloon girls with feather boas taunted admiring men, flashy cowboys complete with vests and fringe. What fun would a piece about cowboys be if there weren’t some glitter and gun-toting males who mimicked John Wayne’s bowlegged swagger? The group sang, talked (dialogue from Arthur Miller’s screenplay “The Misfits” is used), joked, and yes, danced as well. “Maverick Strain,” therefore, had more than a little Broadway and Vaudeville thrown into the mix.  

While the work, explained Goode, revolves around a theme of staying home, the theme appeared loose. The piece pleasantly meandered from chair wrangling to witty bar conversation to restlessness and musings about love and loss. Goode enjoys manipulating gender roles, so his women got a real workout here, including carrying men. In a section that seemed to focus on quiet lament, dancers leaned into their partners in poignant duets. Although Goode is a master of charm, he also hit the right notes as he addressed more serious material.

“Wonderboy,” choreographed in 2008, showed off Goode’s remarkable ability to be both tender and funny. The work starred a puppet – “Wonderboy” – created by famous puppeteer Basil Twist. The performance was supported in part by the Henson Endowment for Performing Arts and the Jim Henson Fund for Puppetry. Twist made the puppet in the form of a young boy, conservatively dressed in pants with a shirt and sweater vest. Awe/doubt was ingeniously expressed by Wonderboy’s slightly sideways glancing eyes.

In the style of Japanese bunraku, Goode’s dancers aptly brought Wonderboy to life. However, unlike the puppeteers in traditional bunraku, the dancers were not cloaked in black to hide their bodies. They danced alongside Wonderboy, always in full view of the audience. Rather than being a distraction, their subtle movements provided even more depth to the protagonist. The dancers achieved exquisite beauty in their multiple silent small maneuverings of Wonderboy’s limbs. The puppet flowed naturally in their grasp.   

“Wonderboy” began at a window, which framed the child’s world. The dancers took turns moving the puppet and providing his voice. As in “Maverick Strain,” there was singing and talking. Wonderboy initially wondered about humanity and his place in it, and he ached with a longing he couldn’t quite identify. Loneliness was certainly part of his dilemma. The boy, who told us we might think of him as “fragile” and “vulnerable,” eventually journeyed from his sheltered place at the window into the wider world with the confidence he gained from various lessons along the way.

As in “Maverick Strain,” Goode couldn’t help but merge a little personal fantasy into the tale. Goode clearly crushes on cowboys, and he apparently also harbors some bitterness toward cheerleaders. Cheerleaders with big red Ws on their white sweaters became evil monsters of sorts. They shouted as many ugly terms for homosexuals as they could muster, which, not surprisingly, felt heavy, ugly, and hurtful. Wonderboy learned to overcome his fear of “everything” by jumping and crouching atop the backs of the cheerleaders, as if he were scaling mountains, and falling in love for the first time (but not with a big-bosomed cheerleader, of course).

In the end, “Wonderboy” was a triumphant and probably somewhat autobiographical coming-out story. Yet the work’s message reached beyond a young boy’s understanding of his own passions. The larger apolitical message of the piece was simply gentle encouragement. “Wonderboy” begged viewers to find that joyous freedom one experiences from expanding one’s horizons and conquering one’s fears, whatever they may be.

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