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Twin Houses

Compagnie Nicole Mossoux & Patrick Bonte

at the Athenaeum Theatre,

September 24 and 25

By Terry Brennan

A person who enters psychoanalysis enters a shifting world where principles once relied on suddenly disappear: one's conviction of a parent's love turns out to be a mirage; one's own goodwill morphs into clutching manipulation. Deep in the wilderness of psychoanalysis a person often discovers that even the ego is an illusion. Simply, a person discovers that he or she doesn't exist. Instead, many people live inside our heads: mothers, fathers, husbands, teachers, sons. The part of a person's soul that's truly his or her own is distressingly small, a discovery so astonishing that a person's natural response is to shout it from the rooftops. But no one understands the poor analysand except other people who've been psychoanalyzed. This creates an ideal situation for making art--for communicating indirectly knowledge that can't be communicated directly.

But how? Because realistic theater focuses on the surface of things, it promotes the illusion of self, the illusion that a body on a stage is one person, whole and indivisible. Even words betray the analysand's experience, since they belong largely to the social world and its steel-reinforced edifice of illusions. The experience demands radical methods.

Nicole Mossoux and Patrick Bonte of Brussels find an intriguing way to communicate these mysteries in Twin Houses. Just as unconscious personality fragments can dominate a person, their puppets dominate the puppeteer. Mossoux performs, Bonte directs, and the puppets are mannequin heads that ride on Mossoux's shoulders, knees, and other parts of her body. Silent throughout the performance, she gives each puppet a specific personality through its movements, conveying each character so well that we see the ghosts inhabiting the protagonist's thoughts. And Mossoux's blank, innocent face easily conveys the vulnerable part of the psyche that's the victim of neuroses.

The puppets are a bratty lot. The first one, a man's bald head perching on Mossoux's right shoulder, just looks on at first as she writes in a bound book with her left hand. Then he picks up the pen and holds it in front of his eyes, as if seeing a pen for the first time. When she takes it back, he snatches it away again, then grabs the book as well and begins to write feverishly in it. This puppet's impulsiveness is revealed in its style of movement--long stares followed by rapid, jerky actions. The character reminded me of an overbearing, bullying brother.

The weakness of Twin Houses is its sketchy narrative. The ephemeral plot seems to be simply the story of a psychoanalysis, ridding the protagonist of her domineering puppets. Some of them die easily: Mossoux gently places a female puppet (a head and long dress) on a tomb, where they wrestle, rocking back and forth; this character is truly banished, subsequently disappearing from the narrative. But the male puppet who snatched the pen from Mossoux returns, more bratty than ever. He snatches playing cards from Mossoux's hand and scatters them on the floor. In a fit of temper she tears the puppet off her shoulder and throws it to the floor--the first moment in the evening when she's had no puppet burdening her. Yet, as many analysands have discovered, rejected personality fragments have a way of returning as neurotic or abusive people in the analysand's life. In Twin Houses, the bald man returns as a towering figure (a puppet riding on Mossoux's shoulders) who quickly seduces Mossoux. In the funniest scene, when he has sex with the protagonist, his huge form completely covers her. Eventually she's consumed by him, disappearing inside his body. He lopes around the stage looking for her, then just gives up and has a cigarette.

Other scenes make less sense. When Mossoux places the female puppet on the tomb, a strange grandmother or witch appears, only to be unceremoniously shoved to the floor. The witch reappears in the penultimate scene, when she boils herbs and a snake in a cauldron. She tastes the potion, then seems to float skyward. It isn't clear whether she's a bad witch killed by her own poison or a good witch--an anima figure--who teaches the protagonist a spell for remaining free of ghosts. Not only is the narrative murky at this point, a Jungian figure has suddenly appeared in an austere Freudian landscape. Jung's psychology is warmer, more hopeful, and more Christian than Freud's almost nihilistic vision. For this reason it's always struck me as a little sappy, and its presence in Twin Houses sounds a false note.

But the most troubling aspect of the show is its distance from the conventions of drama: there's no conflict between good and evil, only the conflict of self against self. No resolution is really possible, as the final scene suggests: Mossoux stands downstage facing the audience with no puppets on or around her, but her arm keeps twitching as if inhabited by an invisible puppet. Freud would say that my wish for resolution is infantile--essentially a wish to regress to the security of breast-feeding where Mother is good and everything else is bad. Confronting my own wish, I have to agree with the ghostly voice of an imagined Freud inside my head. But damn it, I still want a resolution.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mikha Wajnrych.

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