New Islands Archipelago
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 22, 2010
I am happy to go anywhere The Talking Band invites me to go. In New Islands Archipelago, this theatrically adventurous and endlessly questing troupe take the audience on a cruise. Activities like shuffleboard and miniature golf (plus a photo booth), all set up in the theatre lobby before the show proper begins, get us into the spirit of the thing. And then our captain, Benny Zibara, beckons us to get on the ship (i.e., take our seats in the theatre). And away we go...
Our companions on this remarkable voyage, in addition to the captain, include the ship's handsome bartender, who is also a thief (though he says he steals as a protest against capitalism rather than simply for personal gain); his name is Lem, which is short for something unexpected that I well let you discover for yourself. Among the passengers are Pricilla, who is accompanied by her granddaughter, Oona, and her friend, Dot; Virginia, a mysterious lady who, when we first meet her, is disguised as a man, complete with pasted-on-moustache on her face; and Herman, an entrepreneur who is selling shares in a property he is developing called New Islands Archipelago, a set of newly-formed islands supposedly about to pop into existence in an unnamed ocean.
Pricilla's daughter (Oona's mother) disappeared 15 years ago without a trace. Dot's son left home two years ago, feeling smothered by her overprotective love. These women's desires to reunite—or not to reunite; it really is kind of ambiguous—with their lost family members is one of the key themes of the play. More generally, New Islands Archipelago is about dreams, some of which we see in video segments that are entirely dreamlike in their visceral, illogical beauty. People on the cruise who don't necessarily belong in these dreams nonetheless pop up in them, which could be a portent of something real or, I suppose, could just be a reflection of the way dreams operate. I love the ambiguity of this piece: fantastical happenings occur with astonishing regularity and are never commented upon, and the play's ending—well, it might be the way the story ends, but it might just as well be a dream or perhaps even a metaphor.
Playwright/director Paul Zimet exercises our imaginations and constantly tests our capacity for surprise: maybe the play is REALLY about the waking dreams that the magic of theatre creates for the audience. Pretty much any element of theatre that you can think of figures in the proceedings: lots of wonderful evocative music, composed by Ellen Maddow and played brilliantly by Harry Mann and Beth Myers on saxophone and violin; lots of dancing, too, including some particularly sexy and intricate tangling by Lem and Oona; a host of lighting effects and other stage trickery, some of which is too funny to give away here; sleight-of-hand; outlandish costumes (including one that turns one of the characters into, I think, a giant albatross); even a burlesque sequence (choreographed by downtown icon Tigger!).
Physically, the piece is stunning, with a set designed with efficiency and economy and high style by Nic Ularu, nifty lighting by Nan Zhang, and costumes that are sometimes opulent, sometimes funny, and always reminiscent of another time and place—these are the work of Olivera Gajic. The videos are by Simon Tarr, and the fun choreography is provided by Hilary Easton.
The cast of seven, many of them Talking Band regulars, are as tight an ensemble as you could wish for. Steven Rattazzi is at once commanding and self-effacing as Captain Zibara. Tina Shepard and Ellen Maddow bring their customary depth, warmth, and humor to the roles of Pricilla and Dot, respectively. Bianca Leigh is glamorous and enigmatic as Virginia, and James Himelsbach is suave though a little untrustworthy as Herman. Kristine Haruna Lee is fine as Oona, perhaps the most grounded person aboard the ship. And Todd D'Amour as Lem—object of desire for two or perhaps three of the women on board—is a charismatic symbol of a couple of key ideas that flow through the piece: connection and magic.
I had a ball on this particular cruise, from my unsuccessful attempts pre-show to get the shuffleboard pucks anywhere near where they were supposed to land, to my departure, about an hour and a half later, brimming with the rare goodwill and fulfillment that Zimet and company dispense so generously. Of course, if you know The Talking Band, then you don't need me to tell you to check this out. But if you're not familiar with the work of this troupe—who have been making theatre for nearly four decades now!—then this is a grand opportunity for you to sample their singular brand of theatrical adventure.