Nocturnal: Portrait of a New York Night in Nine Movements
nytheatre.com review by Josh Sherman
August 17, 2012
I don't often describe myself as a day laborer, but I may be forced to reframe my point of view after experiencing a vibrant new show, Nocturnal, by the innovative troupe Pangea Performance Ensemble. Because Pangea, who are the writers and performers of this intriguing piece, are bringing NYC a fresh perspective on that largely forgotten section of our local population—the "night crawlers" (as named by the show's character DJ Balex). A ninety-minute tale told in reverse a la Pinter's Betrayal offers us all a chance to experience how it feels to be operating on the night shift—and a chance to reflect on what happens in the darkness while most of the rest of us sleep.
Nocturnal begins at the end (in other words, the morning) with a scene at the Skylight Diner on 34th Street, where a bodega owner, an overworked surgeon, a night-shift cop, a kooky homeless lady and a pair of mysterious couples have all convened after their life-changing evenings. The show progresses backwards through time to unravel the threads of how each of the characters have gotten there, but in a challenging hard-to-follow style that forces the audience member to engage, or be left behind. As is the case with any mystery, it is a challenge to not spoil the non-stop reveals of the second half of Nocturnal, when much of the play's impact comes to fruition, so I am not going to ruin it. Thankfully, by the end of the journey there is a terrific payoff for those who allow themselves to be led to it.
Plotwise, Nocturnal is a little too complicated, as some loose ends never tie up, and everything doesn't always click. The program describes the show as a workshop production, and I am hopeful that there will be a further refining of some of the weaker moments down the road. But given the limitations of FringeNYC shows, the set design by Pei-Wan Huang and lighting design by Hae-Jin Han are versatile and inventive—lots of shadow boxes, interchangeable set pieces, even some brief puppeteering. Director Laura Tesman and her ensemble cast are mobile not only in design but in execution of the set changes. And the piece itself wears its influences on its sleeves (La Ronde, Pulp Fiction, Balm in Gilead) that in less energetic hands might come off as imitation or knockoff.
Pangea overcomes those doubts through the obvious passion of the performers themselves. The show just feels real all the way through. Nocturnal's inclusion in FringeNYC has given this eager group of performers (affiliated with the Brooklyn College Theater Department) a chance to tell stories of a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds that just don't pop up enough in theater circles. There's some standout work from Niki Rios as a graffiti artist, Seimi Kim as the immigrant So Mang, Dennis Kravstov as the conflicted human slave agent Marcus, and Hyun J. Kim as Ujin, a Korean airline attendant, among others in the ensemble.
Some polishing of the work in the future might make for a cleaner-told tale, but the rawness of Nocturnal is in this case compelling. And it will make you think a helluva lot more about how New Yorkers are living at night while you are resting for your next day.