nytheatre.com review by Edward Elefterion
February 7, 2009
Struggling through the thick crowds of tourists that seem to perpetually clog up Times Square, a feeling of wariness rose in my chest. I started to seriously reconsider my choice to review Taoub, which is currently at the New Victory Theater on 42nd Street. I was in Disney territory and I wasn't happy about it. The sight of all the children in the lobby deepened my suspicion. It hadn't dawned on me that a show describing itself as "circus, theatre, dance, and video" was aimed at kids. I also didn't know that the New Victory is the only full-time performing arts theater for kids and their families (something readily apparent from the knowledgeable, youthful ushers who are ready with seat-boosters for the smaller audience members before their parents even ask).
The thing about kids at the theater: they're an instant barometer of interest. If what's on stage doesn't demand attention, they find something more interesting to engage with...maybe the cool seats that flip up and down, maybe the paper of the program. These kids were riveted. They didn't move their eyes from the stage. At the end of the show, the six-year old girl in front of me sat rapt, white-knuckled, still gripping the seat-back in front of her, her stocking hat forgotten on her head. I don't know if she moved a muscle the whole time because I was equally fascinated. Everyone was.
Taoub, meaning "tissue" or "fabric" in Arabic, is an hour-long experience of magic and wonder, perfectly suited for any visually-able human being. It's that exciting. The 11 performers create a tapestry of acrobatic movement that constantly surprises with its seemingly contradictory simplicity and novelty. There's no narrative, no dialogue. The acrobatics are all group efforts and express the developing relationships usually between a pair or three of them, while the remaining eight or nine performers support, either physically or vocally (there's a lot of singing and chanting, which is remarkable considering what they're doing with their bodies). They use no props, only themselves, a large sheet, and a smaller thick sort of net with handles that they use as a homemade and hand-operated trampoline. The lighting, by Arno Veyrat, makes the most of the surfaces of the sheet and the costumes, texturing both in ways that theatrically and emotionally support the action. The costumes, by Mahmoud Tabit Ben Slimane, are equally simple (white full-length tunics that are used at one point as a screen for live video projection and are removed to reveal jeans, slacks, t-shirts, which say "we're just like you, regular people with regular lives").
This message of commonality is a shrewd one because the performers are all Moroccan. In effect, they are the perfect cultural ambassadors for American audiences: they appear to be a team of Arabs (especially when they're wearing the white floor-length tunics), all of whom have amazing skill and talent, who not only entertain a house-full of Americans, but make us want to be like them. I'm certain that I'm not the only one who left the theater thinking "I wish I could do that." I bet that the next day, many of those kids were tumbling around in the park and trying to lift their siblings because of what they saw in the show. That's a very important phenomenon, wanting to imitate something we see, and it's something that the theater can do for us as a society. Sure, tumbling around with other kids in the park is fun, but it's the "with other kids" part that's really important. Collaborating with others isn't just a lesson for kids either. I'm sure we all can think of someone who doesn't play well with others. Productions like Taoub actually show us an example of a world where people rely on and help each other to accomplish clear goals.
Taoub communicates this world wonderfully not only because of compelling acrobatic feats but because there's also a tremendous amount of humor involved. Hardly a minute passes without some visual pun, like the pair of men who lift each other while their image is projected and rotated 180 degrees on the sheet behind them as a challenge for the next position...which they make a meal of with deadpan comedic glances at the screen and each other, trying to size up how on earth that position's even possible before they actually accomplish it. Such humor is crucial to the success of the production and is in no small way due to the playful and confident direction of Aurélien Bory.
I can't say enough good things about my experience of Taoub. In fact, as an exercise, I tried to find something negative to say. Here's what I came up with: they made 60 minutes fly by too quickly. I think that little girl in front of me would agree.