I left the performance of Diagnosis of a Faun at Middlebury College last weekend exhilarated, but with lots of questions: what did it all add up to? Could it stand alone as a work of art without its inspiring back story? How much faun sex is too much faun sex?
I was sure about one thing: the human body is awesome.
The hour-long show opens with Gregg Mozgala, the faun, sprawled in a loincloth across a huge Astroturf-covered rock, surrounded by birch trees. He starts to move, stretching, writhing, getting acquainted with his body, as if he's just woken up and is amazed to have one at all.
Here’s where it’s necessary to know the back story: Mozgala has cerebral palsy. A New York City actor, he had never danced before the choreographer, Tamar Rogoff, noticed him in a production of Romeo and Juliet. She asked him to work with her. He told her she was crazy. She persisted. He caved. Two years of rehearsals and intensive bodywork later, they had Diagnosis of a Faun — and Mozgala’s disabled body had a nearly miraculous new range of movement.
Up on the rock he moves deliberately, sucking in and letting out huge gasps of air, sliding his hands over his skin, stretching out his arms and fingers to reach for something. When he stands up we can see his knees and feet turn inward. When he walks and runs his hips knock awkwardly back and forth.
His animal energy, pent up in that body, is so wild it seems at any moment it could knock him over. Still, he remains in control. Watching him do so throughout the rest of the performance, even as his character’s wildness builds, is what makes it all worthwhile.
The rest is all sex and medicine. A ballerina (Lucie Baker) shows up in a white tutu and tantalizes the faun with a solo. And then she falls and the lights go out.
Suddenly we're in a lecture hall at a medical school. Doctor A (played by real-life physician Don Kollisch) is talking at a podium about the Achilles tendon, which we soon discover our lovely ballerina has severed. Seated on the floor, she peels off her tutu and ties on a hospital gown.
Still lecturing, the doctor walks over to the ballerina so he can point out the parts of her ankle she’s injured. But by now she’s standing, starting her barre warm-ups. He chases after her foot as it slides into tendus and frappes. He can’t keep up with her petite battement.
Perhaps she’s as wild as the 5,000-year-old faun, her spirit as tightly bound into ballet’s regimented movements as Mozgala’s is locked in an unruly body?
When we next see the faun, it’s his turn to be examined. Lucky for him, he gets sexy Doctor B (Emily Pope-Blackman). She starts to describe his condition but he’s difficult to contain and runs away. So she does, I suppose, what any of us would do: strips off her lab coat and blazer, revealing some hot lingerie and an extremely high slit in the back of her skirt, and chases after him.
When she finds him in the forest, he doesn’t bother with foreplay. He inches her skirt up over her thighs and nuzzles his face into her crotch.
The faun idea was Mozgala's. In a Q&A after the performance, he describes how he has always felt like his body was split in two: his sturdy, capable upper half and the unreliable legs he drags around. The half-man, half-goat, notorious in Greek mythology for causing mischief in the woods, was the go-to alter ego, he says.
One concerned audience member asks if the cast ever worried about the implication of bestiality (the horny goat-man ravages and/or romances the entire cast). No, Mozgala answers, but points to a taboo he is consciously breaking: the sexuality of handicapped people.
Mozgala is a sexy guy (especially with those two little horns sticking out of his forehead). But some of his movement — the enthusiastic rubbing of his hands over his body — skews a bit "male stripper." The lechery is so overt in his duet with Doctor B that it drowns out some of the sensuality inherent in their powerful bodies moving together. His playful duet with the ballerina later in the show is more convincing, and sexier.
The piece ends in the forest with Mozgala back on the rock, standing this time, and the whole cast imitating his stance: their knees turned in, their hips slightly twisted. We learn in the Q&A this is the first time Mozgala has been able to fully stand up on that rock. Until tonight, he has never found his balance there.
Which is astounding. And beautiful. Much more beautiful than actually seeing him there, standing on the rock. The piece might not be strong enough to stand alone without his story.
But why would it ever have to?