Theater Review: In Spandex and Sweat, Singlet Goes Its Own Way

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From Singlet. Photo: Sasha Arutyunova

The wolf-eyed Erin Markey wants you to be a little scared in the theater, kind of in the way you’re a little scared when you’re talking to someone attractive and you suddenly experience the weird full-body certainty that you could definitely get laid tonight. Markey is interested in chemistry and power, and in relationships that cross the boundary between stage and life. Their anarchic 2016 bio-rock-musical A Ride on the Irish Cream explored Markey’s own sexual awakening and their relationship with their real-life partner, the performer Becca Blackwell, who played the object of Markey’s preteen Eros in the form of both a pontoon boat and a horse. Their bio refers to them not primarily as an actor but as a “performer” and a “writer/creator of live performance works”: Acting implies pretending — still a crucial, all but unavoidable element of any piece of theater — but performance tells us that the body, the identity, that we’re watching in space is always that particular body, and it wants us to know that it is. The dynamics of attraction, power, and playfulness that Markey’s interested in exploring onstage are always, in large part, the ones that they and their collaborators bring in off the street — and while this should be true in any compelling play, it’s often not, or the act of acknowledging the actual pheromones bouncing around the room isn’t at the project’s core.

For Markey, those pheromones are the project, and the great pleasure and power of their newest show — the mischievous, sweaty Singlet, directed by Jordan Fein at the Bushwick Starr — is witnessing the undeniable flow of real, layered chemistry between them and their fellow performer Emily Davis. Markey and Davis are both company members of Tina Satter’s experimental ensemble Half Straddle (so is Blackwell), and in Singlet, Markey is drawing on their longtime collaboration and friendship, casting them in a variety of relationships that allow them to explore affection, rivalry, vulnerability, and intimacy. As siblings, as parent and child, as co-coaches, teacher and student, and tilted versions of themselves, the two performers are poking at tender emotional spots and pushing their own physical boundaries. The show is in part an endurance test: By its conclusion, Markey and Davis are banged up and breathing heavy from, among other things, numerous bouts of ferocious, fingernails-bared wrestling, choreographed by Chloe Kernaghan in Carolyn Mraz’s stark, white half-pipe-like set.

Back in January, when I previewed Singlet, it was billed as an off-kilter riff on Jean Genet’s The Maids, wherein the central characters worked not for a wealthy socialite but for a pro wrestler, and the pair’s power games went down as they surreptitiously tried on their employer’s closetful of spandex onesies (thus the title). Five months later — though there are still power struggles and, courtesy of costume designers Enver Chakartash and Carter Kidd, highly entertaining unitards — Singlet is definitely not the play that was advertised. Its veering down other courses reminds me of the experimental theater company I once belonged to that would apply for grant money at the beginning of a semester with an utterly fictitious project, then proceed to make whatever show grew up organically in the following months. The creative advantages of working this way are manifold, but they’re difficult to attain in a world of ironclad mission statements, project proposals that feel like you’re applying to adopt a child, and assembly-line production processes. Outside of scrappy independent ensembles making a go of it on their own in New York’s unforgiving theatrical jungle, there are only a handful of venues dedicated to showcasing this kind of actually risky, vividly in-flux work on a regular basis. Along with Dixon Place and La MaMa, the immensely valuable Bushwick Starr is one of them.

Singlet needed to shape-shift. Titillating though it is, The Maids was never going to give Markey enough elbow room. Markey — who wrote the show’s original music along with co-sound designer Jeff Aaron Bryant — often makes collage-like, highly music-driven work. They thrive on montage, juxtaposition that generates emotional arc rather than linear narrative, and as a musician, they understand the power of the concert format: Each song is a scene, its own buildup and release of tension, and one number need not necessarily relate to the next in anything but energy. I admit to hungering for more of their explosive musical power in Singlet (if you haven’t heard Markey’s rock-goddess pipes, this show won’t give you the full experience), but there’s still plenty of tuneful weirdness on tap, from a climatic West Side Story-esque ballet to a wonderfully disconcerting sequence in which Markey gives Davis an awkward booty dance on an old couch while Davis croons the Ying Yang Twins’ “Whisper Song” into a handheld mic. Bryant and Keenan Hurley’s precise, visceral sound design also heightens the production consistently. It’s remarkably tender to listen to the warm, staticky thump as Markey places an invisible needle on an invisible record, and it’s eerie to hear the click of a camera when they blink — which, for Markey, who’s got the unwavering stare of a large carnivore, always seems to be a decision, not that involuntary thing the rest of us do several million times a day so that our sad little human eyes don’t dry up like raisins.

But Singlet wouldn’t work if it were purely about Markey’s charisma — and in fact, the show’s weakest sequence is a long, baroque monologue that Markey delivers solo, without Davis onstage. Only here does the vibrant, unsettling play-world verge on affected artiness. The play’s engine is the almost visible current running between its two performers, and the room feels stuffier, more self-conscious, when one of them leaves.

Davis, whose sincerity is both self-parodying and fiercely real, hides a zany sense of humor and an elastic physicality inside the body of a slump-y tall girl. She’s often the prey to Markey’s predator, but not in a straightforward cat-and-mouse way. More like leopard and ostrich. Davis flutters where Markey stalks, but she’s also a formidable opponent. Singlet begins with the performers forehead to forehead, almost shaking in some kind of strange ecstasy, which we soon realize is the exaltation of Davis’s character, a young woman who’s just managed to fit into a size small at J. Crew. “I didn’t realize you even took a small into the dressing room,” hisses Markey. “Well, I did. And I always do,” Davis answers breathlessly. There’s a husky groan in Markey’s voice as she replies, “Imagine if you hadn’t been such a fool … We would have never discovered that you are swimming in a small.”

Markey and Davis turn a scene of vapid banalities into a hilarious flood of envy and erotic tension, and eventually into a creepy dance of loss and liberation as Davis’s overcome teenager shrieks, “A small! Mother would be so jealous! … I miss her but I don’t!!” There’s the old cliché that if two characters get close enough and the energy gets amped enough in a scene, then there are only two options left: fight or fuck. To Singlet’s credit, it never goes down the latter road. There’s plenty of fighting — whoever else they are, Markey and Davis are always their spandex-clad wrestler selves — and Markey is plenty aware that on some level, there’s an erotic strain to all forms of chemistry, whether it’s crackling between teenagers in a dressing room, or between an infuriated teacher and a devilish problem student, or between a single father and a daughter bonding by shotgunning beers. Singlet walks right up to the edge of the easy and tawdry time and time again (Is something creepy about to go down between the dad and the daughter?, we wonder in our Special Victims Unit–trained minds), but like a wrestler, it slips out of the hold and dances away. It’s more interested in tension than fulfillment, the unnameable sensations that pass between us and bind us, the unspoken understandings that contain both danger and deep tenderness.

In one of Singlet’s funniest sequences, Markey and Davis play a super-motivated, platitude-happy pair of high-school basketball coaches–slash–social-studies teachers: “Your mind is flexible,” they tell us, their students, “so get your head in the game. We’re gonna be all over the map. And it’s up to you to keep up with the tour guides. You can do it, but you gotta want it.” There, put plainly enough, are the audience’s basic instructions. Singlet is a game with shifting rules, but keeping your eye on the ball simply means keeping track of the magnetism between the players. The play’s title isn’t just about colorful onesies. In physics, “singlet” refers (at least, as I understand it) to a linked set of particles in which all electrons are paired — in other words, two electrons spinning in opposite directions in the same molecular orbit. Two particles, bound together not in harmonious stasis but in constant, whirling push and pushback. That’s what’s real collaboration — real intimacy — is, and that’s what’s on often thrilling display as Markey and Davis take the stage.

Singlet is at the Bushwick Starr through June 3.

Markey uses both “they/them” and “she/her” pronouns, and I’ll use “they” from here on.
Theater: In Spandex and Sweat, Singlet Goes Its Own Way