nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
August 16, 2009
Family re-invents downtown experimental theater for the new millennium—and has a tremendous lot of fun doing it. Writer/director Tina Satter and her company, Half Straddle, have obviously done their homework. Family incorporates elements of the avant-garde tradition going back to the Wooster Group, Mac Wellman, Richard Foreman, and beyond: bizarre dialogue with a strangely satiric edge, solos sung into microphones, mixed media (here, an on-stage DJ spins sound cues and occasionally plays clarinet), multiple characters existing onstage simultaneously while in different scenes. A cartouche-inspired dance routine loosely recalls Foreman's Egyptology, a show immortalized in a nearly life-size black and white photo which looms over the entrance to theatre where Family is performed.
Clearly, Family knows and respects its lineage. And plays with it, like a kid knocking down a sandcastle to build a newer masterpiece. Satter re-imagines experimental theater with a post-postmodern/girl-group/punk aesthetic. She adds feminist perspective, gay pride, biting commentary on globalization….and lots of sequins and sass. The song "My Cartouche," performed by giggly girls wearing more sequins than can be found in the "Hannah Montana" clothing section of Sears, is one example of this new avant-garde. The catchy number simultaneously critiques self-important art, American Idol, Valley Girls, capitalism, and school projects—all while being a fabulous production number in its own right. (For a link to a video of the song as found on Half Straddle's website, click here.)
Family tells a strange story that somehow transforms itself into an allegory of American life. It centers on Lily, a would-be ballerina who must give up her dance dreams when her Mum orders her to be impregnated with Rudolf Nureyev's sperm. Meanwhile, Lily's post-modern Mean Girl of a baby sister, Frarajaca, has to drill her friends in their dance routine for the big art fair competition while Rolf, Mum's creepy friend, gets a little too close for comfort. It's deliberately, utterly fantastical—and yet, whether pointlessly chopping up zucchini or flailing about the stage in tulle and sequins, these characters argue, cajole, and live convincingly as a family. A family that happens to have its own DJ onstage at all times (composer/choreographer Chris Giarmo doubles with deadpan stare as the DJ and dogsbody, Sharky).
Satter and set designer Nathan Lemoine make creative use of the rough, multi-level Ontological space. Mum bums cigarettes off Rolf on the catwalk above while her daughters sleep in their bed below. Frarajaca and her friends seize the entire space to be their stage; Rolf later struts down the catwalk stairs to sing his scale-climbing solo. Lemoine miraculously suggests a cluttered, kitschy home with nothing more than some secondhand furniture, some books, a fluorescent painting of a tiger, a kitchen table laden with zucchini and popcorn, and Mum's old evening gowns hanging on the catwalk above. A mysterious, almost pre-historic hearth burns upstage throughout—perhaps a symbol of family as a primeval part of the social order? Or that this family keeps the home fires burning.
Costume designer Normandy Raven Sherwood makes a campier nod to the primeval with Frarajaca's skintight, green neon animal prints, which give way to increasingly outlandish sequins. Every piece of clothing is clever, kitsch, and, if possible, sparkly.
The entire ensemble radiates giddy, infectious energy. Emily Davis brings a poignant grace to Lily while never losing sight of her inherent absurdity. Erin Markey plays Frarajaca with a sharp, Valley Girl whine that's knowingly aware of its own ridiculousness. Rae C. Wright coolly underplays Mum's melodrama while somehow finding a grain of compassion within Mum's steely, sparkly exterior. Joseph Keckler, a trained operatic baritone, shows off his range (and falsetto) as Rolf in an eerie, eleven o'clock number that brings the play's disparate strands together.
See Family before it closes, and see history being made. It's an intriguing glimpse into the future of downtown theatre.