Stranger Friend is indeed one of the stranger shows you’ll see at a gallery this season — stranger not for porn-y shock or caked-on layers of irony, but for a simple, common, wide-open unfamiliarity. Looks-wise, the three performers at La Esquina — one musician and two dancers — could easily have been you or me. Performance-wise, Leralee Whittle's possessed dances with Stephanie Fellner and Paul Sprawl's anachronistic music made the insane seem like an everyday thing.
The scene at La Esquina is unrecognizable — except for the patrons and their chairs, tangled brunette and blond wigs hang from the wall, and silver nylon covers a folding table and hangs from a speaker. As the show begins, a congenial cowboy called Paul Sprawl, whose tools are an analog synthesizer and a Western guitar, tips his hat and gives his thanks; only his hat and jacket are silver nylon. The only other props, familiar things, are a mirror and a few purses, Paul Sprawls’ hat with yellow letters spelling ‘Flip’ in the brim.
A projection plays a DVD. “Please relax,” it says first. Then “Feel the air on our skin.” Then "Join with the others in the room." Famous stranger-themed quotes then appear for a moment on the screen — Walt Whitman on the majesty of strangers. These were the only signposts to ground any interpretation of the dance, which left the rest of it up to big, Great-Plains-sized ambiguity.
The plotlike thrust begins when two anonymous women in tight party dresses spill into the gallery and convulse gradually toward each other. Saying 'women' implies an identity that these female figures do not possess — their faces are veiled with overgrown locks, and their bodies are more like puppets. They mimic and complement each other’s stiff animatronic motions. They become entangled and raveled up in each other’s spasmodic shutters. They proceed to scuttle under the table, into the shelter together. Meanwhile, the video projection plays the two women now on some industrial street, trying to push a shopping cart over the curb and attracting unwanted attention. The film cuts, and after it there is a dialogue between shoes — one pair of cowboy boots and one pair of red stilettos, filled with hands. Later, one is suddenly hurled out from under the table with a purse, a prop that their bodies begin to struggle with but also love. The other follows closely behind — she now wearing the purse over her head. Movements are both violent and nurturing.
With a costume change into everyman street clothes, the repulsion and attraction continue into a second act. This time around, their faces are revealed, their relationship more repellent. A video shows one figure slinking around furniture, fighting with wigs and losing, as Paul Sprawl waxes softly about market research and its suffocation of identity, particularly female identity. The stranger, the second dancer, can't stop looking at herself in the mirror and becomes a dubious friend who became an enemy in a selfish pursuit of being the others' shadow.
Paul Sprawl's music — the propelling and possessing soundtrack — is admittedly untrendy. It's not curmudgeonly, though. His fresh, synthetic sweeps and slick slide-guitar songs rippled heavily through the room. His sound goes back through the legends of electronic music — Kraftwerk and the experimental jingles of Raymond Scott — while staying deeply rooted in Memphis blues. A new genre: the common, humble insanity of country-western drone (maybe already Lynchian territory).
By the end, Whittle dons a cowboy hat and slowly wanders out of sight, recalling the iconic stranger whose very being is unfamiliar, nondescript. Stranger Friend
insists on being strange — not just weird but unrecognizable, unknowable. Without much else in the room, it becomes a real force, repelling or attracting us unconsciously. The show by these Minneapolis-based artists continues every night at 8 p.m. at La Esquina through Sunday.