Cleansing the Senses
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 18, 2006
Open movement: work of people asking themselves and each other, "What is necessary to do?" And as an artist, how to engage oneself actively with another human being? What is the practice of an artist who does not offer finished works of choreography, theater, or painting?....I am involved in developing craft in working conditions which have no intention of exhibiting or presenting artistic products. What kind of craft can develop? How are the qualities of presence, attentiveness, spontaneity, and simplicity spawned and cultivated as techniques much in the same way a dancer works on the plié?
- Peter Rose, 1979
Historians know that in order to understand where we're going, we have to understand where we've been. Cleansing the Senses, an extraordinary theatrical happening all on its own, offers people who make, participate in, observe, and/or love theatre in 2006 a unique opportunity to (re)discover where much that we take for granted came from. Its creator and performer, Peter Rose, was one of the founders of P.S. 122 in 1979. Rose has returned to his one-time New York theatrical home to share this solo performance piece, and all who care about the kind of work done by P.S. 122 and its counterparts all over downtown Manhattan should take it in.
The piece lasts about an hour, and is essentially a stream-of-consciousness ramble through Rose's psyche and his past. He's assembled it from such diverse elements as poems by T.S. Eliot and Bertolt Brecht, one of Shakespeare's sonnets, excerpts from the works of James Joyce, a traditional spiritual called "Diamonds in the Rough," a blessing from the Talmud, and his own monologues from 1978 through the present. It's organized into seven "movements" (I'm adopting that term because Rose has labeled the show's components in the program a "Performance Score"; it seems to fit.) I didn't always follow the train of thought and indeed some of the pieces, in German, Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew, I didn't understand at all except in the most rudimentary fashion. But Cleansing the Senses comes together as a powerful piece, one that touched me deeply in a couple of places and provided me with important persepective about a lot of things that matter to me in contemporary theatre art.
What the "score" doesnt' hint at, not at all, is the variety and physicality of this remarkable work. Rose tells us in a program note that "the performance action is an attempt to confront the actor with his limitations...[to] challenge him and to reveal his humanity and vulnerability, the light within." Normally I'd be inclined to dismiss this as so much high-falutin' verbiage, but this is precisely what occurs in Cleansing the Senses. Though Rose clearly intends this piece to be performed for an audience, and though he sometimes connects very directly and individually with his auditors, it was always clear to me that Cleansing the Senses is for him—that the specific selections and the very demanding and complex physical movements comprising the work are meaningful and necessary to him.
He's moving through a journey here, a cathartic one; we're along for the ride. And, behold: the qualities of presence, attentiveness, spontaneity, and simplicity—I'm quoting from Rose; see the top of this review—are indeed spawned and cultivated. We leave the space—him, I presume, as well as us—in a state of heightened engagement and awareness, our senses not only "cleansed" but purged, ready to experience whatever's ahead with a renewed energy and sense of purpose. This is truly an inspiring theatrical event.
Let me add that there is a sort of narrative here, charting Rose's early career in New York, California, and Europe in the late '70s and '80s. It's fascinating theatre history and a bit of a cautionary tale as well, as Rose chides his younger self publicly for pinning his career hopes on an appearance on the TV program thirtysomething that I'm guessing never actually happened.
But the shape of the show and its implementation amount to a master class in the theatrical techniques that Rose and his contemporaries—disciples of Grotowski all—pioneered two and three decades ago: more theatre history, of a hands-on sort, not unlike the Wooster Group's most recent show, Poor Theater.
And then there's the hopeful subtext: a never-ending search for meaning and fulfillment, a journey through doors that are ever open but could someday close, an appreciation of the value of ritual and traditional forms for an ethos bent on inventing new ones.
A riveting, affirming, transforming experience, this: Rose has much to teach and share, and I am grateful to have had an opportunity to partake.