nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 24, 2007
American Standard is the latest presentation from the extraordinary theatre troupe bluemouth inc. Their previous NYC works were performed in three rooms of a small hotel (LENZ) and a big open room in the basement of an office building (What the Thunder Said); this one is staged in the men's clothing store and adjoining barbershop at Freeman's Sporting Club on a gentrifying block at the edge of Chinatown. It's a cool locale—the bluemouth team has proven themselves adept at finding neat spots in NYC that are hidden treasures all on their own—and the show itself is breathtaking, constantly surprising, and endlessly involving. bluemouth shows must be experienced to be appreciated; you have till Sunday to experience this one, and I wholeheartedly suggest that you do.
It's a sideshow, or collage, of mostly American archetypes, from all over the economic and social spectrum and various points on the time continuum; the characters—all portrayed by the remarkable Stephen O'Connell—pop up at us from every nook and cranny of the shoppe and urge us to follow them (sometimes literally) into whatever milieu and historical period they inhabit. One of the triumphs of American Standard is that, despite the very evident trappings of the place we're in (men's suits on the wall, bargain t-shirts in a barrel, barber chairs and a sink for shampooing hair in one corner), as the play proceeds it's hard not to believe that we're actually in a dozen other locations. An odd but dapper man launches into a stylized dance (his partner is played by Lucy Simic) and suddenly we're in a makeshift ballroom; another man grabs a guitar and takes us, maybe, to a hobo camp during the Great Depression; a third mourns the death of a comrade in arms while gently and gallantly singing the Irish folk song "Kevin Barry."
O'Connell's characters here embody two contradictory strains of the American ethos, professing eternal optimism on the one hand and suffering from alienation and hopelessness on the other, though always, it seems, in pursuit of self-actualization. Sources credited in the program range from Walt Whitman to Mickey Mouse, from Woody Guthrie to a man from England named Ken Campbell whose apparent meditations on reality and our place within it fuel the speeches of the play's most appealingly quixotic denizen.
But it's not only what's said and done here that matters; it's our engagement with these singular men that ultimately defines our experience of the piece. O'Connell and his collaborators, Lucy Simic and Sabrina Reeves, sometimes actually give their audience members things to do—I was handed a flashlight mounted on a headband (think a miner's hat without the helmet) and, essentially, "ran lights" for one of the scenes; and I had my picture taken with one of O'Connell's characters. More important, the intimacy and intensity of the piece, and the absence of a traditional "fourth wall" separating actor from audience, restores the "play" in play: this is a communal adventure in pretending, or more accurately, in being: the show invites us to make journey after journey, not just in our heads but with our whole bodies, like Alice tumbling down the hole.
It's dense, artful, absorbing, and fun. The penultimate scene is so thrillingly unexpected that to say anything about it risks spoiling American Standard's neatest surprise; suffice to say that you've almost certainly never witnessed anything like it in any theatre of any description.
bluemouth's creativity and craft continue to astonish me. In addition to the raw, energetic, and precise performance of O'Connell in nearly a dozen different roles, the piece features music (recorded and live), costumes, and multimedia elements of various types, all seamlessly choreographed and stage managed by Simic and Reeves.
American Standard is sort of like a personal tour through a deserted amusement park, or maybe a movie studio's backlot: some iconic location in our past inhabited by ghosts and collective memories. Yet it's happening right now in Lower Manhattan, in the middle of winter, in the middle of a cozy storefront. This latest adventure from bluemouth is absolutely worth checking out.