It’s a chilly Friday night, the day after Halloween, and moments before making an informal curtain speech, Matt Cosper gives me the elevator pitch version of GUF (Thee Well of Souls), XOXO theater troupe’s latest ensemble performance piece.
“It’s a theater piece masquerading as ceremonial magic,” the artistic director and founder of XOXO explains. “Or it’s ceremonial magic masquerading as theater.” If that’s not an entirely helpful description, how about this: Since XOXO’s last scripted productions in the spring and summer of 2017, the psychedelic Zen western All the Dogs and Horses and the post-apocalyptic collision of fever dream and crime drama #Cake (Year Zero), the troupe has concentrated on a series of three impressionist, seemingly free-form small ensemble pieces. GUF (pronounced “goof”) is the third part of a triptych that also includes Widdershins (Loop Thee Loop) and All Our Little Innocence (The Children’s Crusade).
Cosper explains that all three are far from typical theater. Each can be experienced less like a carefully plotted novel and more like a poem. Or if you prefer, a magical casting of the runes. This is the second date in GUF’s brief three-day run, and it’s no accident that it’s happening now before disappearing into the ether. The veil between the seen and the unseen worlds is thinnest on Halloween, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, says Cosper, who is also the show’s director.
“We do experimental theater, and we can go pretty far out,” Cosper tells the group milling in the Goodyear Arts lobby. “But this is the furthest out we’ve ever gone.”
He tells the theatergoers that they’re important, because whatever his performers do, it doesn’t become theater until it happens in front of us, the audience. And though the actors are important, he continues, we should also pay attention to the space surrounding them. “Interesting stuff happens in the periphery,” he explains, “in the shadows.” You can’t say Cosper hasn’t given his audience fair warning that shit’s going to get weird really quick.
And so it does. The cast sweeps into the performance space — literally. Clutching brooms, Kadey Ballard, Jon Prichard and Cody Frye circle in a loose whirligig dance before regarding the seated audience with alarmingly exaggerated grins and gestures of welcome. Crazed and coquettish, they smirk, flirt, say hello and urge us to breathe before roaring, attacking, shrinking back and encouraging us to do the same. Frye gives us a few helpful words of advice, “One more thing. You’re already dead!” Then blackout.
Throughout the performance we seesaw between total darkness and sudden pools of light, a chiaroscuro of illumination and befuddlement, comedy and dread. The performers are by turns energetic and then weighed down by gravity and the burden of their physical bodies. Then trappings of ritual intrude. Bells are rung, actors are bound as if being readied for sacrifice and lovely lavender scented towels are passed out among the audience.
The evening progresses as a series of free-flowing vignettes, snapshots of moments strewn across time and space. At one point, Ballard and Frye produce a silver bowl for Prichard, just in case this dark and magical rite of passage forces him to puke. All three don blindfolds and scribble furiously on a sheet of paper as if in the throes of possession. They cut up the sheet and roll it into scraps, giving each of the spectators a sample. Later I unroll my scrap of automatic writing and try to find patterns in the scrawl of black and purple lines.
Bathed in lurid red light, Ballard, Frye and Prichard sing an a cappella sacred harp song. Although harp songs date from the 1840s New England religious revival, the hymn seems older than history or language.
The silver bowl returns to serve as a scrying glass for the blindfolded Prichard. He screams as he peers into the abyss, seeing royal blue demons with ravenous appetites. The actors duck offstage and reappear as said demons, haughtily dismissing the audience in Monty Python accents as they exit spitting.
Then the actors are like children playing in the dark. They repeatedly run and tag the back wall before rushing up to the audience before breathlessly imparting insincere compliments and nuggets of non-sequitur. Throughout, blackness flutters around the edges, like a spirit lurking in the shadows and occasionally making scalpel sharp incursions into the pools of light.
If I had to hazard a guess it’s all about. I’d say we’re witnessing a kind of alchemy; the performers are isolating the properties of the soul as they put themselves — and us — through a frightening/comical/mystical experience that makes each of us whole. After spiraling deeper into a dream that seems to freefall through layers of consciousness, the lights come on and the audience pauses before applauding and coming up for air.
Like any ritual worth its salt, GUF (Thee Well of Souls) is ephemeral. It has been performed for three nights only — Samhain and the two holy days right after All Hallows Eve.
So, if you weren’t at Goodyear Arts during these dates, have you missed it? Not entirely. After the show, Cosper says that GUF, along with Widdershins and All Our Little Innocence, will provide raw material for XOXO’s next scripted production. What form that will take is anybody’s guess.
It’s fair to say magic will be involved because Cosper takes this stuff seriously. He tells me that he’s looking into getting literature from the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a 19th and early-20th century secret society devoted to the study and practice of the occult and metaphysical, which has survived through several iterations down to today. The order has claimed among its membership Irish poet William Butler Yeats, the Welsh author Arthur Machen and the English poet, magician and great beast 666 Aleister Crowley.
As for GUF, the performance has provided much fuel for contemplation. Because of the mix of ritual, absurdist comedy and full-blooded performances by Ballard, Frye and Prichard, I experienced the characters’ transformations with joy, hope and fear — all the while wondering what the fuck was going on.