nytheatre.com review by Jeffrey Lewonczyk
July 27, 2005
All of the shows at this year’s Summer Series were inspired to a greater or lesser degree by the work of the Ontological’s guiding light and monstre sacré, Richard Foreman, whose often abrasive art of wildly unexpected juxtapositions and id-aimed kinetic and scenic imagery bypasses the traditional routes of narrative comprehension to stake out a completely unique territory right smack in the middle of the viewer’s mental craw. To follow in these footsteps is an admirable path, but most of the artists I’ve reviewed these past five weeks have tread a bit too lightly, perhaps. It’s interesting to see so much striving for subtlety in the House of Foreman, where outsized, often grotesque, gestures would seem to be the order of the day.
In the sense of using the stage as a platform for perception-altering experience, it was a show that maddened me above all else—Last Year, the Universe—that seems in retrospect to have been the most effective; I may not have liked it, but it certainly made an impression on me. Two other shows succeeded in creating immersive theatrical worlds: That’s Not How Mahler Died and Tea With the Twins. Though the latter presented the most physically impressive landscape, the former’s canny manipulation of time succeeded in making it an unforgettably engrossing event. The two shows that bookended the Series—Is This a Gentleman? and Veils/Vestiges—both employed found text collaged in a new context, and, despite a handful of surprising or delightful moments, the material didn’t yet seem fully digested enough to truly alter my perceptions.
I salute each of the artists involved for their willingness to take these risks, and to place works in various states of completion before the critical eyes of outsiders. However, in a festival like this, there’s little to be lost by risking even more, and it was a sense of danger that I missed most. I wanted to be offended, disgusted, seduced, to receive the full brunt of the experimental impulse that such a program can give vent to, but, with a few exceptions here and there, such sweeping defiance of expectation didn’t seem to be what interested many of these artists. Tea was made, the audience was offered gifts, we were all treated as co-conspirators, people worth politely winning over to the shows’ inner merit. Perhaps in this divisive age the tactics of confrontation are beginning to be frowned upon; fueled by trepidation about the havoc such attitudes are wreaking on the world at large, we’ve appropriated communion as a subversive recourse.
Despite my caveats about shows in particular and the Series in general, I walked up the steps to the Ontological each week with excitement and anticipation. I experienced five distinct yet complementary visions, and Morgan von Prelle Pecelli, the Series’ curator, deserves special mention for creating a context in which, together, they could resonate with a fascinating harmony. Though occasionally disappointed, I was never discouraged, and more often than not I was disarmed. I look forward to coming back next year and seeing how the project grows.
Veils/Vestiges (August 24, 2005)
Created by its primary artists, Temple Crocker and Annie Kunjappy, while living in separate cities, Veils/Vestiges reflects this dissociation in its very fabric. It’s a dialogue of words and images that connects, when it does, over a distance. Little feels immediate; the disembodied voice that emanates at one point from within a small tent, answering personal questions addressed by an interlocutor, feels like an apt metaphor for the experience as a whole.
The show’s subtitle is "the aesthetics of hidden things," and sure enough, emotions are discussed throughout but rarely if ever conveyed. Readings from the text of Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy express no such affliction on the part of any of the players but simply float through the events of the production, leaving you to guess when they’ll come home to roost. That they never seem to do so is either a component of this hermetic aesthetic, or a reflection of the piece’s fragmented, almost nebulous state.
The primary theatrical image is that of a group of nice young people speaking directly to us in pleasant tones, offering us small gifts of printed cards or spools of threads between the requisite semi-silly dances. As the pleasant cast guides us through their loose system of intellectual connections, the experience comes to resemble sitting in class at a kindergarten of higher learning. In fact, as soon as I made that connection, various aspects of the show that seemed incomprehensibly arbitrary to me finally started to make a kind of sense: cards with colored pictures being placed in a circle on the floor; a show-and-tell featuring an actor’s collection of bells; a rolling set piece meant to be a house which resembled nothing more than a five-year-old’s lopsided drawing of the same. Combined with the erudite found-text script, it all felt like a lesson plan for incredibly precocious schoolchildren.
Unfortunately, though viewing the piece this way averted a certain degree of frustration, it still fell short of being elevated to a transfixing state. As often in pieces of this nature, there were a handful of images that proved temporarily transcendent, in this case moments involving mechanical toy birds and the drawing of bodily organs onto an actor’s bare torso But despite the kind attention given to the audience throughout, I felt addressed without necessarily being engaged, as if we were in a tent, or talking on a fuzzy phone line to a friend in a distant town.
Last Year, the Universe... It Came to Me in a Dream (August 17, 2005)
If you’ve seen enough experimental theatre you know that paradox is possible, maybe even probable. In the case of Last Year the Universe… It Came to Me in a Dream, the new show by Temporary distortion, we have it in spades: a piece that is simultaneously intimate and alienating, aggressively subdued.
The vast majority of the action consists of two performers standing or sitting in a constrained box-like structure, speaking text softly into microphones. Lights turn on and off, a gently churning soundscape comes and goes, and you feel yourself being hypnotized, forced into a state of mind you weren’t prepared for. It is an incredibly reserved attempt to muck around with the building blocks of your consciousness—let’s call it passive-intrusive.
Let me be on record as saying that I really respect what Temporary distortion and director Kenneth Sean Collins are doing—it is serious, deeply felt, intellectually rigorous work; but man, did it ever drive me crazy. That this is probably part of the point drives me crazier still. Admittedly the piece requires immense amounts of concentration to follow, a challenge I wasn’t completely up to. Left to my own devices, I found my mind turning to thoughts of all the various busy activities in my life—the very bustle that Collins, in a director’s note, claims to be working against with his strategy of silence, stillness, and minimalism.
For about the first 20 minutes, I actually loved it. The “box” is a miracle of aesthetic engineering: a metal frame structure just big enough for the two performers to coexist closely but still feel miles apart, rigged to the nines with wires, cords, colored fluorescent bulbs, microphones, and small TV consoles that often show close-ups of the actors’ faces. And I was impressed by Lorraine Mattox and Brian Greer’s intense commitment to their blank performance style, whether speaking slowly, in a muddled burst of words, or through song. But after a while the piece’s droning quality left me behind. The affectless, disjointed text didn’t help: to say that it is about the heartaches of interpersonal isolation is like saying that stereo instructions are “about” globalism—not so much an explication of the phenomenon as a dry, utilitarian example thereof.
If this had been a gallery installation I could have wandered in, studied it for twenty minutes, and left feeling I’d understood something fundamental about it. But clocking in at over an hour, it’s telling that one of the script’s mantras is “There is no way of escaping.” Surely the impression of endlessness was one of Collins’s goals, and it succeeded in making me feel like a restless victim of hypnosis—a paradox if ever there was one.
Tea with the Twins (August 10, 2005)
“Tonight we will bring about the end of the world,” is the first line uttered by one of the creepy girls at the top of the show; though they don’t manage anything quite so precipitous, they cut some interesting capers while trying. Written by and starring Normandy Sherwood and Jenny Seastone Stern, Tea with the Twins is a case study in amiable avant-garde tomfoolery that’s still trying to figure out where it wants to go. Of course that’s what the Summer Series seems to be for, so let’s focus first on what the girls are offering before we touch on what they’re holding back.
Ostensibly, the Twins (who go by the same names as their creators) are entertaining us in what would seem to be their parlor. The Ontological space has been completely transformed, skewed sideways and festooned with wild brambles, garland upon garland of fake flowers, strung-up stuffed animals, and Styrofoam walls. We are guests in their reality, and they make gracious if eerie hostesses as they play out charmingly jerky dances, deliver hand-drawn presentations about feral children (children that did not attend cotillion parties like the Twins), jockey for audience favor, and spew cockeyed monologues about birds and dreams reminiscent of the literary absurdities found in early issues of the now-seminal lit mag McSweeney’s.
Stern is the more expressive actress of the two, investing her follies with increasing verve and conviction; Sherwood, who takes a more laid-back approach, seems to be anchoring the pair in its self-created context. They both have a good time playing off each other, as well as a character foil, covered with hair, in the person of the Interloper (Andrew Dinwiddie, in outrageous hillbilly drag). His attempts to bollocks their nebulous apocalyptic scheme provide whatever drama the show has to offer.
And this is where Tea with the Twins offers room for improvement. It’s largely without structure, held together by a frame flimsier than the foam fireplace from which they declaim melodramatic protestations against the Interloper. Stern and Sherwood have worked together as actresses in the shows of others, but this is their maiden voyage as an outright performing duo. There’s something mildly enjoyable about the looseness of their script and the randomness of their images, but I might not have felt as kindly if the cast’s work hadn’t been buttressed by my pleasant memories of their performances in other productions. If in future incarnations they manage to give their Tea a tighter trajectory, I’ll wait with anxious approval for that promised Armageddon.
That's Not How Mahler Died (August 4, 2005)
The company’s name may be 31 Down radio theater, but despite an exquisite and indispensable soundtrack, That’s Not How Mahler Died is not a radio play. Far from it: though stillness and silence play a crucial role in the richly ambient proceedings, it’s the moments of intimate physicality that stay with you longest: a mouth sucking the last drop of medicine from a tiny spoon; the absentminded swinging of a woman’s leg; the heartbroken folding of a letter.
The primary wonder of radio as a medium is that, by withholding visual information, it makes the listener’s imagination an accomplice in the creative act. Though its events unfold in three physical dimensions before us, That’s Not How Mahler Died reflects radio in that it too withholds vital information and allows the viewer’s imagination to fill in the vast crevasses that remain.
The show has something of a story, but it requires your subconscious knowledge of film noir and detective potboiler in order to germinate. Taking place in the late 1950s, and very loosely inspired by the life of Gustav Mahler (whose music plays a key part in the show’s conclusion), the piece takes potential genre clichés—dim light, portentous chords, hardboiled text, smoke—and somehow uses them to create an atmosphere so clear and pure that your focus attaches to the tiniest details. At the center of it all is a classic love triangle: slow-burning neglected wife; dopey, desperate husband; sleazy, smitten lover. They each speak brief fragmented monologues or dialogues (some pre-recorded) that convey relevant plot information, but the actors provide far more silence than speech.
The refractive technology that’s become conventional in much avant-garde theatre is here used to wonderfully period-appropriate effect. An old rotary phone rings and rings, each ring comically growing longer than the last. An old 16mm projector displays images of the married couple filming themselves. An old black-and-white TV speaks to the husband in the character of Doc Freud (pronounced “Frood”), exhorting the husband, in a nasal Paul Lynde whine, to pull himself together. The piece is a technical triumph, but in a completely organic way. And the cast is superb: Lian Sifuentes as the wife, Ryan Holsopple as the husband (who also directed and designed the sound), Frank Boudreaux as the lover, and DJ Mendel in a video appearance as Doc Freud. Not a finger feels out of place, yet the performances breathe with a poignant sense of heartache. This is radio for all the senses, creating an alluring complicity with the viewer; don’t miss the chance to be a part of it.
Is this a gentleman? (July 27, 2005)
That the script for writer/director Kara Feely’s experimental duet Is this a gentleman? is developed from an English language textbook becomes clear as soon as events begin to unfold. Two men share the stage, trading a stylishly stilted form dialogue, mostly in the form of questions and answers. Mr. A (Ross Beschler) cuts the figure of a distinguished chap, replete with trench coat, fedora, and umbrella, but it’s Mr. B (Avi Glickstein), who’s obviously calling the shots. With a stopwatch in his hand and a whistle around his neck, Mr. B resembles nothing so much as an affable gym teacher, patiently drilling a promising but none-too-bright young athlete.
However, the sport in question is not merely physical; it consists in no less than the acquisition and understanding of civilized human behavior. Like a test-tube clone or a Frankenstein’s monster, Mr. A is a fully-formed man who is only beginning to grasp the particulars of the world around him. The exchanges between the two men, which primarily take the form of a friendly interrogation, are a parade of amusing banalities, ranging from observations about the weather to lists of which animals are considered beautiful—part The Bald Soprano and part The Lesson. Occasionally Mr. A shows off his newly-acquired knowledge by, say, ordering dinner with the impatience of a prig. Mr. B’s teaching style grows more insistent as the play continues, though the reason for this, like many other things, is never made explicit.
It is, in fact, this overall lack of narrative context that allows the performances to float freely in a logical world of their own, a space which is both the simple stage in front of us and a timeless netherworld. This uncertain frame, as it contrasts with the simplistic certainties of the language, gives the piece its mildly disorienting quality. However, although certain moments achieve a dreamlike immediacy—the two men eating bowls of strawberries and cream into distorted microphones; a dollhouse over an actor’s head, with a megaphone coming out of the front door—the randomness often feels contrived, making Is this a gentleman? an overwhelmingly intellectual experience. Conversations about whether animals behave rationally or instinctively hit a bit too squarely, and without a goal beyond its own exegesis the show—despite fine performances and killer sound design (by Travis Just)—threatens to become an education in the obvious, not just for Mr. A but for the audience. As Feely continues to develop her theatrical experiment further from its Ionesco-inspired roots, perhaps she can take the opportunity to further imbue her artful simplicity with more examples of the rich imagery that serves its current incarnation so well.