A darkly luminous meditation on freedom, captivity, mortality, and memory, Winsome Brown’s Hit the Body Alarm oscillates between poles: Heaven and Earth, free and imprisoned, poetic and prosaic, stylized and realistic, direct and oblique, modern and classical. The solo piece begins, as the audience enters, with a sound collage: Brown recording phrases in other languages, which are played back live but voice-altered, looping and collaging in a way that presages some of the piece’s questions about memory and control, about ownership of one’s own person and one’s own narrative.
Two monologues, both present-day prison stories (one by Brown and one by her co-director, Brad Rouse), form the core of the piece, framed by three sequences from John Milton’s Paradise Lost: Satan’s descent from Heaven to Hell, Satan’s decision to journey to Earth and take the measure of God’s newest creation, and Eve’s dream that foreshadows her moment of temptation (a snippet of James Joyce also retells one of the Milton segments). All the stories circle around freedom of will, consequence and choice, and the burdens of living with the choices you’ve made.
The Milton and Joyce sections are linguistically rich and resonant, and Brown revels in the language, savoring its meter and rhythm, delighting in its imagery and the myths it evokes. They’re about the fateful choice to exert free will no matter the consequences, about breaking away from a paradise not freely chosen and therefore not entirely unlike a prison. Satan decides it’s “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” and Eve dreams of the only forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden–even if what follows is, quite literally, Hell.
By contrast, the two prison stories feel irreducibly physical, grounded in the torments of the body and the details of the present. They’re as rich in detail, but it’s detail of a terrible kind: The specifics of a grotesque minor surgery done in a prison supply closet. The dragging minutiae of a day in jail. The route driven through LA before committing a terrible crime. The “body alarm” itself, sounded when someone in a prison is unconscious or dead. Here, there is no end to captivity; the choices already made have led to this utter loss of control over your space, your body, your time. And if the prison stories are a dark reflection of the questions raised by Milton, the two tales are themselves mirror images: one shows the inhumanity with which prisoners are treated, the other the inhumanity of which humans are capable. One is about an ordinary prison day marred by an ordinary prison death and what comes after; the other is a tale told by a woman prisoner, utterly dispassionate as she relates the life that led her to a terrible crime. The language is immediate, stripped-down, concrete.
I have long wanted to see Paradise Lost adapted for the stage, and the sections here give a tantalizing taste of the possibilities: the subtleties of character beneath the archetypal figures of Satan and Eve; the grandeur and epic sweep of the conflict. Even in a very simple physical environment, with a single performer, you get a strong sense of the genuine tragedies of both the fallen angels and the fall of man.
The acting style is presentational, capturing that Brechtian quality of combining emotional truth with a narrator’s sense of story. Still, there are definite stylistic differences between the Milton sections, done with a light British accent (Irish for Joyce) and a hint of declamation, and the prison sections are more naturalistic, more directly addressed to the audience in an almost confrontational way. The shift of styles here feels right but occasionally a little show-offy, like when Brown uses her copious skills at vocal mimicry to embody the various prisoners who populate the section in the men’s prison. Still, that range is what enables her to strip the last two sections down to the bone; the female prisoner sits in a chair and quietly tells her terrible story, and Eve, naked, recounts her dream, which we know–as she does not–presages what will occur. Eve and the failed-actress-turned-prisoner–and Winsome Brown–are beautiful, vulnerable, and terrible all at once, and it’s a powerful combination.