In a pre-performance talk with Emma Gladstone, artistic director of Dance Umbrella, Annie-B Parson claimed never to have heard of Samuel Pepys and his 17th century diaries. Her eyes were opened when she was introduced to the unexpurgated edition, in which his coded accounts of his sexual activities are exposed in full.
She and her Big Dance Theater company, based in New York, set about turning Sam’s priapic confessions into a dance theatre piece, mashing up past and present. 17c, first performed in 2017, pre-dated the ‘Me Too’ explosion of outrage at men’s behaviour towards women. Parson’s feminist framing of Pepys’s dirty deeds has since become ever more timely as yet more ‘entitled’ gropers are accused.
17c, however, is not so much a tirade as a highly theatrical box of tricks. The cast of five performance artists assume different roles, dressed in brocaded costumes and an array of wigs. Captioned screens above their heads comment wrily on the action, commanding us to close our eyes for a jump cut to the next scene. Spoken texts from a variety of sources, sign language and choreographed dance sequences are often randomly juxtaposed. Stagehands in periwigs push the scenery about in plain sight. A long pause when nothing happens is a reminder of the disconcerting devices used by Pina Bausch, one of many tanztheater influences.
Because Parson assumes that Pepys is an obscure figure for most of her audiences, there is a lot of tiresome exegesis and smart-ass references to critical deconstruction. Two of the female characters pose as earnest academics dissecting the diaries, while Cynthia Hopkins parades ironically as Pepys himself in a curlicued wig. She looks remarkably like Mark Morris in his early appearances in Dance Umbrella, when his locks were still abundant.
The core of the multi-layered piece is Pepys’s lecherous misbehaviour with his wife’s maid, Deb Willett, and his wife’s fury at them both. Parson’s declared intention is to give Elisabeth Pepys a voice, since her husband destroyed her diary, thereby erasing her identity. Elizabeth DeMent makes herself heard as Bess(/Elisabeth), after remaining silent in the first part as the only dancer in the cast. Although DeMent is an experienced dancer, Parson’s choreography for her is inexpressive, until she is able to roll on a bed in remembered lust with her dancing master. Her introductory dance, Cunningham style, is all too reminiscent of the Trocks’ send-up in Patterns in Space.
Paradoxically, although Bess is given her due, Deb is not. Recent research has revealed that she was not a maid but a gentlewoman’s companion. Pepys remained infatuated with her, and she may have loved him. He helped her find a husband (he never raped her or even consummated their affair.) Yet 17c ignores her story.
Pepys, in the form of Parson’s husband, actor and director Paul Lazar, takes centre stage for a bravura monologue, seated in an armchair by a fake fireplace. He riffs ruefully, like comedian Larry David, on his urges and inadequacies; he veers between self-justification and remorse; he’ll make up for his misdemeanours by buying his wife new clothes or things for their house. He’s a human being – he’s likeable, if not forgivable.
Since Pepys is far from forgotten in Britain, where BBC radio has serialised his diaries and Claire Tomalin has written his biography, 17c might be more stimulating in the United States as an exposé of age-old lechery. The cast’s quick-fire American delivery is lost in translation and their attempts at baroque dance are unconvincing. As the flagship of Dance Umbrella in its 40th year, 17c is a confused and confusing let-down.