In a Hall in the Palace of Pyrrhus
nytheatre.com review by Josh Chambers
August 10, 2005
Witness Relocation Company’s In a Hall in the Palace of Pyrrhus is a testament to the audacity and force of director / choreographer / adapter Daniel Safer, as well as an impressive showcase for the talents of these disciplined performers and vital designers. Before the play even properly begins, we are treated to a display of the ensemble’s virtuosity in a series of set pieces that unfold in cascading intensity. In these adept spots, we witness a movement solo with sword (performed by Sillapin Thong-Aram), a thrillingly precise and physical lovers’ duel / attempt at seduction (performed by Laura Berlin Stinger and Sean Donovan), and a gorgeous landscape featuring the entire ensemble seated in chairs enacting the moment of stillness before an imminent upheaval.
Ostensibly an adaptation of Racine’s Andromaque, the performance begins in earnest about ten minutes into the evening with a disclaimer delivered by two be-suited raconteurs who state that this is not, in fact, a production of Racine’s Andromaque, but a series of human interactions that take place among real human beings, that is, “fully consenting” human beings. Among the other announcements and notices, there is also a short plot summary, delivered with a sports announcer’s concision: Orestes loves Hermione, Hermione loves Pyrrhus, Pyrrhus loves Andromache, and Andromache loves her dead husband Hector.
With these facts dispensed and clearly in play, we are allowed to get to the meat of the matter, which in this case is a collection of choreographed interludes devised by Safer to interrupt the narrative and pull focus to the intimate details of desire within the larger context of war. Safer often stages these webs of unrequited love as a series of partnered physical collisions; violent and visceral pas de deux where flesh hits flesh and the resultant contusions become badges for the characters’ ongoing emotional ache. The interludes are set to a wide array of music, from Bowie to the Nutcracker Suite to “My Funny Valentine”, and played out amidst production designer Ruth Pongstaphone’s economical and effective designs. Between and around these interruptions are sections of dialogue, commentary, and narration, which seem to demand that we stay engaged in story with at least enough depth to appreciate the next onslaught of imagery.
At times I felt that the production’s accrued impact was compromised by these brilliant detours. As breathtaking as each of the individual sections are, I found myself desiring global momentum both in narrative and in mode of expression—more tonal and rhythmical diversity in the staging, more structural surprises, and more threat and variation in the piece as a whole. At times, when I could feel the inherent brutality of the narrative beginning to surface, I was let off the hook by the sleek sensuality of a new movement sequence or musical number. This occasionally made the performance difficult to engage in emotionally, beyond the sheer wonder of spectacle and the thrill of watching a company who clearly has their hands on the reins of craft.
Safer’s poetic and gorgeously playful interludes work best when they function as the dilation of a moment: a drawn-out breath between two lovers, a microscopic plunge toward the point of caress, the flash of spark off swords seemingly frozen in the air. It is in these moments—the “between the cracks” probing of the story space—that Safer and company achieve the sublime. When these instances occur (and they do occur quite regularly) the pulse of the room is changed, and the tragedy of Andromache slips into your blood as if by chemistry or magic.