With three dancers portraying the tragic figure of singer Karen Carpenter, who died in 1983 at age 32 of an eating disorder, and three dancers portraying her Quaalude-addicted brother and musical partner Richard Carpenter, Mathew Janczewski's 2011 "I Hate Myself. Will You Please Love Me?" offers a smart dissection of the duo's deterioration.
The story of the Carpenters has inspired documentaries, a made-for-TV movie and Todd Haynes' brilliant 1987 stop-motion film, "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story," in which the subjects are portrayed as Barbie dolls.
As with Haynes' film, Arena Dances artistic director Janczewski captures the disturbing contrast between the clean-cut, virginal image of the Carpenters with Richard and Karen's self-destruction, as well as the codependent, perhaps abusive, relationship between them.
Costume designer Sonya Berlovitz clearly had fun designing the 1970s-era costumes for the revival of "I Hate Myself," which continues through Sunday. The three Richards are dressed in an assortment of brown pants, paisley and printed shirts and neck scarves, while two of the Karens are dressed in tight bell-bottom bodysuits and one in a girlish white dress, all wearing white tennis shoes.
All of the performers wear wigs, which for the Karens are presented on the microphone stands at the beginning of the performance, allowing the audience to see the ritual of putting on an identity.
The choreography is often chaste and peppy. The dancers could be cheerleaders or performers in a high school show choir. They open their arms to the audience, presenting themselves with huge, fake smiles. For the kicker, Janczewski loads the stage with dozens of stuffed animals, alluding to Karen Carpenter's real-life obsession with childhood toys and Disney paraphernalia well into adulthood.
But then we see the cracks: the three Richards pushing the Karens back when she shines too bright, the Karens glomming on to the Richards, hiding from the outside world, collapsing. We see Richard lifting Karen's body like a lifeless doll and swinging it about the stage, and Karen vacillating between playing gleefully with her toys to tearing them to shreds.
At one point, we see one of the Karens and one of the Richards switch wigs, taking on each other's gender and identity, and the new male Karen Carpenter (or female Richard Carpenter) thrusting himself against the back wall in agony.
The piece disturbs, but no more so than what actually happened. Janczewski's well-researched work illuminates the details of the Carpenters' downfall, creating an inspired ballad of lost dreams and the casualties of fame.
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis writer.