Dance is Julia Rhoads' primary language, but she's been playing with theatrical conventions and using dialogue and text in her work for years. The founder of the Chicago-based dance theater company Lucky Plush Productions, Rhoads is interested in creating a hybrid brand of performance in which neither the dancing nor the acting is compromised. The two genres may rub up on each other in both smooth and abrupt ways, but both still maintain their integrity.
"We're not just asking dancers to speak on stage for the sake of giving dialogue," Rhoads says. "We're really looking at each form and paying attention to art and character development and narrative development and when movement is necessary because it's so evocative and so visceral in ways that language can't be. And what stories do physical interactions tell that language maybe can't, and when is language used? Because in dance it might feel illustrative or overly dramatic to tell the story in a physical vocabulary."
Trained in the classical ballet world, Rhoads joined a dance theater company after college that used interdisciplinary methods — like dialogue, video, and movement — to explore modern ideas and socially relevant issues. "So when I started my company, all of those ways of processing information and putting into an artistic product were very familiar to me, and it felt like home artistically," she says. "I fell in love with the idea of making work that really looked at contemporary culture and that resonates with people on intellectual levels but then also has this very visceral component of dance."
These elements come together in The Better Half, Rhoads' project with co-director Leslie Buxbaum Danzig. At its most basic level, the show is based on Gaslight, George Cukor's 1944 film about a man (Charles Boyer) who torments his wife (Ingrid Bergman) by making her believe she's going insane. But The Better Half is not telling the explicit story of the mystery thriller (which itself is based off a play). Instead, Lucky Plush uses Gaslight as a jumping-off point and frame for an original story about the relationships people have, the roles they find themselves trapped in, the scripts they follow, and how they can find resilience after years of routine.
While Lucky Plush's other works have narrative components, The Better Half is heavy with it, and you won't see any petticoats or Victorian sets on stage. The cast isn't playing out the historical contexts of the film; they're trying to make sense of what's happening in their script on contemporary terms. Lighting also plays a big role, as exemplified in the opening moments of the show, when the performers are directed down a roll call line and a narrator gives them their assignments.
From the get go, language and movement are both present in The Better Half, so the audience starts out instantly familiar with that world. A man (Adrian Danzig, the director's husband) and a woman (Rhoads) are assigned the parts of Mr. and Mrs. Manningham, the doomed couple from the Gaslight film. They are told they are married, and they have to figure out how to be married using the information given to them throughout the show. This new couple discovers their relationship in a physical way. They start out by shaking hands, and their motions evolve in a good-natured manner.
The "gaslighting" starts out playfully too, as Mr. Manningham mimes his search for his keys. He plants them back in his wife's hands as a joke. But as the story progresses, the couple keep getting pushed back to this action, much to Mrs. Manningham's confusion. "There is a sense that I don't really know what's real and what's happening and what's in the story and what this person is really doing of his choice, and so it starts playing with this fact and illusion," Rhoads says. "He starts to really plant this idea of the Gaslight story, that he's manipulating me with objects and things like that." Still, he isn't torturing his wife necessarily because he wants to — he's doing it because that's what he's been instructed to do.
The Better Half's other characters have their own problems with their parts. One woman is given the role of a stout, amiable, subservient woman in her 50s — it's not her dream job. She goes along with it for a while, but it's not long before the character pulls out her smartphone in search of a new script. Soon she's proposing dialogue from The Bourne Identity, Scenes From a Marriage, and All the Real Girls. "There's a way in which the real-time events have brought the characters to this place of wanting to get out of their current situation, where they start trying to make sense of who they are through other scripts."
So how do you change your role if you don't like it? You jump scripts and get yourself a different story. And it's not long before these new subplots begin to layer over each other.
With so much additional text, the audience should avoid getting invested in the Gaslight source material. Instead, they should focus on how the performers navigate their character assignments. Lucky Plush is trying to recreate a common experience, when someone feels confused in front of other people and they're trying to figure out how to proceed. And as the script propels the story forward, sometimes it goes into dark territory, but there's humor there to undercut the gloom.
"So much comedy is found in real-life human circumstances, and so much tragedy is found in the same way," Rhoads laughs. The Better Half's comedy presents itself instantly, as soon as the performers show up and awkwardly try to make sense of their parts. Rhoads hopes that this discomfort, and the ways the characters steer through it, will be relatable to her audience.
"The biggest takeaway that we want the audience to have is that there's real resonance about people and these larger questions of being in relationships, and you get in habits and you start finding yourself in a role. This happens all the time," Rhoads says. "I think because we're addressing all of those larger questions, there's so much space for the tension between the comedy and the tragedy of it."