February 5, 2003

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Family viewing
Rapt Performance Group sets up House.
By Rita Felciano

WITH THEIR NEW work, House, Austin Forbord and Shelley Trott – the husband-and-wife artistic directors of Rapt Performance Group – are taking on the American family. And not a moment too soon: by the end of this month the couple expect their first baby, and thus will be joining that troubled, fabled institution.

Over the past five years the two displaced Los Angeles natives (who met when Forbord hired Trott as a dancer for a company he was running) have developed a skewed look at the way conventions and expectations shape human behavior. They've translated that nutty disjointedness into rambunctious multimedia dance theater that rides a current of emotional fragility. First they took on Montgomery Street: 1999's Stuck was a hilarious, sharply timed look at what's hidden beneath suit-and-tie uniformity and at the chaos that ensues when those corporate constraints burst.

Then the duo decided to take the idea one step further and find out what happens to salaried folk in their split-level ranch homes. The result is House, which starts a two-weekend run at SomArts Cultural Center this Thursday. The work has been in the making for close to three years. Premiered at Summerfest in 2001, its first segment, "The Real Thing," started where families often do: in bed. One queen-size piece of furniture acted as a couple's battleground, comfort zone, and negotiation table. The playing out of a combative marriage simultaneously took place onstage and, from a different perspective, on a video screen. At Summerfest a year later, a piece called "Family Room" was added. The couple now had three self-absorbed, media-raised kids who drove everyone – sometimes literally – up the wall.

The finished one-hour House includes not only a new cast – Trott having dropped out for obvious reasons – but also a half-dozen video components. But House is not a statement about the evil influence of mass media on the American family. "I am not interested in that," Forbord explains, during a break from rehearsal. "I just take media as a fact in our lives. It simply is." Trott adds, "We all grew up in our own families, but we also see this experience constantly being reflected back on us in the mass media." What's happened is what Forbord calls a "generification" of culture. "For better or for worse, pockets of individual culture are disappearing," he says. "What we have in common is this experience of a mass culture, and that's what we are trying to physicalize."

A week before its opening, House looks very much like a project under construction. The split-level set, at one end of SomArts's cavernous warehouse space, includes a white linoleum kitchen with running water and a discreetly wallpapered living room with a scalloped sofa and chairs. In one corner the queen bed awaits its return to the stage. And everywhere, even from the rafters, TV eyes gleam. Rapt's "family" members – a mix between the Osbournes and the Simpsons – communicate in a bouncy, highly physical language of slides and leaps, somersaults and cartwheels, breaking and swinging. Kneepads aren't required, but they might be a good idea. Though there is a sense of loose-limbed freedom, each move is in fact choreographed. "We work improvisationally with the dancers in rehearsal," Trott says. "But then everything is set."

Stage left during this rehearsal are two musicians whose relationship to the piece is still being refined; Forbord is the one who primarily works with them. In the back of his mind is the collaged sound design for American Beauty, a film that left its mark on the two dancemakers. "It has this great sound score which just keeps showing up and which [sets] the mood of the film," he says. "What we first did in 'The Family Room' section," Trott says, "was give music to each character. The child had the xylophone and the Prozac mother a Lawrence Welk -y type of string music."

Because of the cost involved, including musicians in every stage of a work is a rare luxury. "We indulged ourselves in the making of this piece as much as we could afford to," Forbord admits. "We have had the musicians with us since just about the beginning." A slight smile crosses Trott's face as she adds, "We are behaving as if we had a budget, which we don't."

'House' Through Feb. 16. Thurs.-Sun., 8 p.m. SomArts Cultural Center, 934 Brannan, S.F. $16, (510) 981-1005.