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'Floydada': A Tale of Love, Death and Dada

Peculiar Works Project brings Dadaism to a rural Texas town, and a New York art gallery.

Photos by Dan Lane Williams

To anyone with a passing knowledge of modern art movements, there is very little that summarizes their absurdities and frequent incomprehensibility than Dada. Dadaism was a rejection of the logic and reason of a capitalist society, a protest against the destructiveness of the First World War and an appeal to chaos. That playwright Barry Rowell has managed to turn such a style into an engrossing, emotional narrative without compromising the integrity of the art itself, then, is particularly impressive.

Floydada is the story of a Dadaist from Floydada, Texas. After having traveled the world and conversed with such important artistic minds as the historical Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, writer Dalia is forced home due to illness. Reinstalled in the house of her sister Ada, who has never married or left rural Texas, Dalia struggles to continue to make her art without audiences or collaborators. So what does she do? Teach her sister to write and perform with her, and put on their own Dadaist salons.

The entire play is performed with just the two actresses, emphasizing the isolation of small town America, plus a pair of accompanists performing an impressive, entirely live sound score and controlling projections to add to the surreal artistic atmosphere. These projections, reminiscent of the everyday found objects and fractured gaze of Dada and other avant-garde styles, immerse us in the world of the art, while we sitting at small cafe tables become the audience to Dalia and Ada's salon performances.

Floydada gets off to a very slow start, establishing piece by piece the sisters' shared past and the oppressive atmosphere of such artistic isolation. The most compelling elements of the story, in fact, that of Dalia's illness taking hold and Ada learning to be a Dadaist writer and performer in her own right, do not really begin until halfway through the show. But once it gets going, it's enthralling, with Ada's growing confidence as appealing as Dalia's diminishing mental capacity and subsequent dependence on drugs is chilling.

And of course, we watch all of it happening at the same time. The stage is set up so that the three main areas the sisters live in, the living room, backyard and store that they use for their salons, are all present at once, with touches of Dada (a miniature piano, a vase gifted by a friend) throughout. Often during the performance, one woman is working in one area while the other is moving about in another, giving us a constant awareness of both as though they only exist in relation to one another.

What is particularly exciting about this play, of course, is its complex and engaging roles for older female actors. Ada and Dalia are two very different types of strong women, and the two actresses compliment one another beautifully. Nomi Tichman plays Dalia's stubbornness and steadfast refusal to give in to weakness so well that we hardly even realize she's sick until it's too late, while Catherine Porter's Ada has the freshness and slowly emerging confidence of a woman who is by no means ready to give up on life yet.

The closing moments of the play capture this dichotomy perfectly, with Ada's star rising and Dalia's is fading. And as her Dada poem performance grows and develops, we see the story of the love between sisters emerge from amidst the chaos.

Floydada plays at the Merchant's Square Building through April 11.

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