Review: Heartbreak and hope in ‘13 Love Songs’

Jun. 26, 2014 @ 09:36 AM

The duet, “13 Love Songs: dot, dot, dot,” performed by Ishmael Houston-Jones and Emily Wexler, came across as a cautionary tale at Tuesday’s 7 p.m. performance at Durham Arts Council’s PSI Theater.
There’s a focus on obsession and the way this psychologically unhealthy mind-set sets a person up for disappointment. Using a megaphone, Wexler makes this message loud and clear as she reads excerpts from journals written from second to 10th grade, that document her obsession with one boy. During her last year of this fixation, she does express a moment of clarity as far as self-esteem, when she writes, “There must be a place without this curse … a place where I come first.”
The first sign that this duet would be a journey into raw emotions occurs early on as Wexler’s soft singing turns into a guttural growl, then a high-pitched keen.
Movements also reveal heartbreak’s emotional and physical toll. In one sequence, both performers dance as though trying to exorcise demons. Wexler tosses her long hair with a violence that could cause whiplash, then tumbles across the floor. At another point, Houston-Jones repeatedly throws himself to the floor and lands hard as lyrics proclaim, “Love is back …”
The performers also effectively portray the way in which happy love songs can make people sad if they are not in love. As Aretha Franklin sings of being in love, Houston-Jones sharpens a knife and hands it to Wexler, who uses it to cut an onion in half. They smear the onion halves on their faces to induce tears. They bawl.
Other moments suggest longing. To an Irish ballad in which a woman sings, “I know not where I’ll find the one I love,” Wexler sways on her toes, her face upturned, her head way back so that her hair cascades like a waterfall.
There is only one time – to Eric Satie’s romantic “Gymnopedie No. 2” -- when the performers make physical contact; it is tender and loving.
In a surprise ending, the performers invite audience members on stage and instruct them to lie on their backs. Then, Wexler, in a soothing voice, leads them in a meditation on self-love. All this time, Houston-Jones is creating a shrine to past loves by pinning photographs of women on a bulletin board as he repeatedly sings, “You [are] everything, Everything is you” from the Stylistics song, “You Are Everything.” This song describes a man’s lament that no one measures up to his lost love. But ironically, in the context of this duet’s ending, these words can also be interpreted as a mandate to love oneself.
There were some problems with the space and audio. This venue is not ideal for dance because, depending on where a person sits and where the action takes place, some of the activity cannot be seen at all or a performer’s feet aren’t visible.  Sometimes, it’s not possible to make out everything that performers are saying. But their actions speak volumes.