The Importance of Being Earnest / Undine
nytheatre.com review by Ivanna Cullinan
August 27, 2009
Two exceptional young shows are finishing off the Summer 2009 Ontological-Hysteric Incubator Series on a very high note, and are well worth your time. Both from the west coast, Undine and The Importance of Being Earnest show off some of the very fine work being done elsewhere in the country as well as the difference in sensibilities.
Undine in particular is a show from a place with very different cultural expectations. It is a piece entirely without cynicism or irony and maybe a bit of a shock to a New Yorker's system. When Faith Helma comes out at the top and initiates a direct conversation with the audience, there is an element of earnestness that is both beguiling and a bit confusing. I kept waiting for the comment or the punch line to what she was saying—but there isn't one. She simply wants to gauge the audience before beginning a very personal set. Undine is a conversation through music and occasional dialogue by the performer with the audience. While the music and themes are all set around the tale of Undine (a water nymph who marries a knight for a soul) and do create a whole, this piece is less about narrating that story and more in the service of framing the narrator's experience. She is a bit of a nascent Kate Bush, with costuming and choreography that communicates as much through what it does for her as what it does for us—which is not meant in any way to imply any narcissistic lack of desire to communicate on the part of the creator/performer. It is a more fragile work, intending to be magical and asking an urban audience to be intimate. It takes an extraordinary amount of strength and skill not to ask or defend through any guise of commenting but simply to be this honest. Strangely it is somewhat like a conversation that might take place late in adolescence and late at night when all the secrets come out. The music is electronic and deliberately haunting, the pace has great ease, and the costuming is as much dressing up for an image in the mind as an illumination or support of the piece. It is an intriguing work that if you can come to it openly offers significant rewards.
Then Helsinki Syndrome brings on their Importance of Being Earnest, which has an entirely different relationship with the audience. Somewhat related to the Oscar Wilde play, it goes very much beyond that and into its own realm, which includes some of Wilde's jail and post-jail writing, the music of Prince, and appearances by Godzilla.. Helsinki Syndrome (marvelously composed of Rachel Hynes and Mike Pham) makes very specific, albeit somewhat odd, choices of text from the play as the major jumping-off point. That text, while enjoyable enough, is almost irrelevant to the larger piece. They go from occasional scenes from Earnest into a realm of other text and moments, some directly related to Wilde and others seemingly utterly unconnected. Where they go does hold together but is very specific to their interior sensibility and how it all fits was not at all clear to me, though in a very comfortable way. It was entirely clear that Helsinki Syndrome knows where they going with it, and there will be some fun and some surprises in their interaction with the audience. This isn't the sort of thing that feels like an in-joke or, far worse, like an idea that's spending out a grant to someday become half-baked. This production has wholeness to it. There is a specific world being created that we engage with but which is not bound by traditional narrative, single-minded exploration of a theme, or grand statement. There is some seriousness amidst a great sense of play and whether the actors are in the audience with us or on stage or wherever in the space, there is either something interesting going on or a sense of something about to happen. Plus I loved the boxes. The set consists of boxes with indications of setting on them, they shift for various locales and provide basic, honest support but best of all are very satisfyingly interacted with at the end.
It is absurd the amount of talent and interest that this pairing provides, and it will be well worth your time to enjoy them.