Porno Death Cult is a fearless mix of art and spiritual searching

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A Tara Cheyenne Performance production. At the Firehall Arts Centre on Thursday, March 6. Continues until March 8

Her long hair hanging to cover her face, Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg appears silently on-stage, looking like a hybrid of a white-tuxedoed Vegas act and a ghost from The Grudge. She starts to convulse toward the audience from the stage’s central altar, the initial sounds of feet crunching along a pilgrimage trail giving way to a montage of religious chants and songs. Only later do her hands lift in prayer, appearing through the mass of hair to part it so we can see her face.

The dramatic entrance is an apt introduction to the way the dance-theatre artist will hop religions, madly mashing spiritual ideas with her own skeptical, earthbound brand of soul-searching. What’s fascinating is she won’t just do this with words, but with her body, where so much of religious ritual is centred. One sequence finds her bouncing and breaking down repeatedly on her knees; in another, she morphs from a crucifixion pose into a yoga teacher leading a class.

Over the course of the evening she will become that pseudo-sincere West Coast yoga teacher, an evangelical preacher, and a whirling dervish. But most of the time she plays Maureen, an endearing, insecure 41-year-old Irish woman who addresses us personally, like we’re her own church congregation. Sometimes she even sits among us to ponder God. (“Do you think he hears our thoughts?”)

Maureen is searching, and it seems like she has tried just about everything in her quest to connect with God—even starving herself, “except for that little lick of condensed water inside the bathroom window”.

There is a lot to laugh at here, but Porno Death Cult is at once more deep and less narrative than Friedenberg’s other solo shows, like bAnger and Goggles. Aided here by theatre director Marcus Youssef, she uses the most casual, freewheeling approach to ask abstract questions about life and death and to probe into human fears.

The contradictions of the trendy yoga world—one that grows out of spiritualism but worships the body—provide some of the ripest connections. (Friedenberg is a teacher and practitioner.) “Feel your bones illuminated from within,” she says, then brags about losing her 10 pounds of baby weight by simply breathing it out. And, again with a light hand, she gets at the eroticism and fetishization of so much religion (see Porno in the title): witness a long sequence where Maureen lights candles and waits for a visitation from the Son of God like she’s nervously preparing for a blind date—or booty call.

What does her frantic flurry of impressions all mean? That’s harder to say. It seems like Friedenberg is much more interested in the searching than in the finding.

The set, designed by artist Mickey Meads, is a fantastic-looking, oversize altar constructed out of photographs—memories and religious iconography all jumbled amid the imagery, brilliantly illuminated separately, at different times, by lighting designer James Proudfoot. (He also turns a heaven-sent spotlight on the stage and audience at opportune moments.)

It’s the kind of fearless, amorphous mix of interactive comedy, dance, art, and spiritual searching that could only have come out of the head of Friedenberg, a performer who defies categorization on any level. But lose yourself to her manic rhythms, her lightning-fast shifts between moods, and her soul-baring sit-downs with the audience, and you just might find a new religion in her cult of personality.

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