‘Mordake’ at San Francisco Arts Festival

True Stories

“One of the weirdest as well as most melancholy stories of human deformity is that of Edward Mordake, said to have been heir to one of the noblest peerages in England … His figure was remarkable for its grace, and his face—that is to say his natural face—was that of an Antinous. But upon the back of his head was another face, that of a beautiful girl, ‘lovely as a dream, ugly as a devil.’”

Composer Erling Wold and poet Douglas Kearney have taken this slim and puzzling “true” story and formed it into an hour-long opera that examines the potential sources of Mordake’s deformity. Is the double-faced Mordake the product of chimerism—a creature of mixed genetic material—or is the man projecting a psychological “other” onto the physical reality of his body?

Other possibilities for the odd merger appear and disappear throughout this complex study of a man divided against himself. Among them, eating becomes the main metaphor for Mordake, who claims he is the bad boy who “eats” his family starting with his sister. His other face—his “sister”—takes the form of mirrors, hand mirrors with a face on the back, a standing mirror topped with a bonnet, a large circular mirror that becomes the platter on which Mordake eats his dinner.

Whatever the source of the second face, Mordake suffers. He confines himself to a room. And although the projected drawings, paintings and photos of his bedroom whirl and transform around him—across the screen that forms an L-shape in the theater space—it is clear that the room is a prison. The confrontation, deadly.

John Duykers performs Mordake in this demanding, experimental piece, and he does so to perfection, unfolding the character’s despair with physical dynamism and vocal energy. When he sings of taking bites out of his family’s flesh—while cutting holes in a thin mantle of cloth veiling his face—he becomes demonic. At other times, his vocal dialog between himself and his “evil twin” seems merely delusional. Whatever the emotional territory, Duykers projects it convincingly, and the effect is powerful.

Melissa Weaver’s direction keeps the story’s surrealistic flow moving. The knife with which Mordake eats his dinner transforms into his doctor; just as easily Mordake moves around his confinement, changing focus and emotional tone. Wold’s score is electronic; even the sections performed by the San Francisco Composer’s Chamber Orchestra were recorded and melded seamlessly into the music, which for the most part is minimalist in approach and rhythm. Wold has a definite lyrical and melodic sense that moves beyond minimalism though and helps establish arias within the overall musical structure. Kearney’s spare text and gothic imitations allowed Wold plenty of compositional room.

Interactive sound technology gave a bizarre spin to several duets between Mordake and his evil twin. As Mordake speaks and sings to his twin, Duykers’ voice is recorded, transformed to a higher register and replayed. The effect creates an eerie, high-pitched echo repeating Duykers’ words with a slight lapse.

This idea was repeated in the extraordinary visuals by Frieder Weiss. Two projectors back-projected the imagery of the sets while a third projector was interactive: at times picking up an image of Duykers’ moving body, processing it into a silhouette of moving colors and re-projecting it onto the performer’s body or onto the back screen of the stage. Mordake was a wonderfully inventive recreation of the human nightmare of the body’s susceptibility and the fear of self-loss.

Jaime Robles
Originally published by the Piedmont Post