Review: "Chasing the Tides, or Exposure" Hits a High-Water Mark

Chasing the Tides, or Exposure

Written and performed by Matilda Woods

Directed by Jessica Burr

Presented by Blessed Unrest at Theaterlab

357 W 36 St., 3rd fl., Manhattan, NYC

December 9-18, 2022

"Matilda Woods" in Chasing the Tides, or Exposure. Photo © Maria Baranova Photography
Both halves of the title of Chasing the Tides, or Exposure, a new, devised show written and performed by the pseudonymous Matilda Woods, point to the multivalent themes and symbols of this exceptional production. Woods's character ranges enthrallingly through her personal history, from childhood shopping trips to relationships with lovers to a revealing dance experience, and the titular exposure is not only of this woman's memories and secrets to the audience but also a constitutive experience of female embodiment and its expectations surrounding bodily display. The tides themselves represent an oscillation between concealment and revelation, but the play's repetitions of high and low tide measurements also invite connection with other cyclical or repetitive aspects of lived experience. Throughout the show, particular language periodically resurfaces, but so do elements of living as a woman (male hands, pills, cosmetics); contradictory impulses (both within the events being recounted and in the decision to recount them, which sometimes meets resistance from some inner part of Wood's character); and even physical poses by Woods.

The writing of Chasing the Tides began with a series of physical prompts, or "body musings," given by director Jessica Burr, and it is the body that focalizes this work. One of the early memories discussed by Woods's character is her adolescent awakening to her body as something perceived by the constituting gaze of others, whether her mother, who looms large throughout, a cute boy at the beach, or any of the other innumerable Others whose perceptual recognition is foundational to one's sense of existing as a subject. She tells us also that she is skilled at tuning into the "algorithms'' of others and thereby establishing intimacy, and the intimate nature of the performance space fruitfully complements this theme of intimacy: if part of the character's exposure is the experience of existing as a body amongst Others, this experience is emphasized for the audience, heightening the feeling of the presence of other bodies, the way they occupy space and the frisson of proximity, primarily to the performer but also to the audience members, seated on three sides of the room and fully lit. At the same time that Woods's character sees the positive in her facility with "algorithms," she later observes that it can come with the cost of conforming to the needs of others in the process of creating intimacy.
"Matilda Woods" in Chasing the Tides, or Exposure. Photos © Maria Baranova Photography
Alongside recurring elements such as makeup and medicine (transformative of the body, especially the female-coded body, and so how it is perceived by the gaze) and men named David is a dedication to domestic cleaning bequeathed by Woods's character's mother. In addition to any links to gender roles, in the context of the show's themes, it is more than tempting to see something in this of the sociocultural association of the female body with porousness, uncleanliness, leakage–what scholar Julia Kristeva calls the abject–in opposition to the association of the male subject with the closed, clean, and bounded body. Intimacy, of course (including but not necessarily physical intimacy), represents one form of boundary crossing, and the gaze another. Woods's character notes that she is descended from a long line of pilots on the male side, perhaps gesturing to an association of men with air in contrast to her own, female association with water, made stronger by everything that she wears being blue and flowy. The role of bodies of water in several important memories help to remind us that the self is both the concrete fact of the body (itself mostly water) but also, like its memories, fluid.

Woods has said, "Some of the material in this piece is rigorously truthful, some of it is rigorously fiction"; and Chasing the Tides does at a well-judged point throw the boundary between memory and fiction into question. Woods gives an entirely captivating, not to mention physically impressive, performance. The physical theater influences in that performance only bring an even greater energy and depth to a wonderfully evocative piece, as does her periodic turning of the gaze on the audience. Whether Woods is wistful, rage-filled, confiding, or dancing out dueling impulses and/or social expectations to L7–much as her character observes that she can be the virgin, the whore, and the monster–she is equally spellbinding. (As an aside, her delivery of a line ending with "all. It all," unintentionally or not, calls to mind lines in Beckett's Footfalls, a story of a daughter and mother with an emphasis on bodies, about the daughter "revolving" her past ["it all"] in her mind.) Chasing the Tides, or Exposure is a perfect fit for anyone chasing a fantastic theater experience.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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