nytheatre.com review by Mitchell Conway
April 23, 2011
As I reflect on the gorgeous flurry of impressions in the SITI Company's Under Construction, I must say I felt deeply satisfied to have been there. Upon leaving the theater I felt a surge of anxiety; the best sort of anxiety, where I felt compelled to be more as an artist and as a person. Exquisite artistry such as Under Construction is an impetus for action.
The stage design by Neil Patel feels naked. Metal ladders, construction string lights, plastic buckets, and saw horses are among the scattered props. There are no wings. Lighting side arms and rigging are fully visible.
Before the play begins, actors are casually milling about the stage, chatting with friends in the audience. They generally play themselves, but slip on characters temporarily.
Scenes in the style of fifties-era educational videos on etiquette lay the foundation to be ruptured. From a variety of authority figures in consistent announcer-speak, we hear advice on "how to make friends in a new town," "how to go on a date," "how to be a good house wife," "what is an acceptable haircut," etc. There are those who "know," giving advice; and those who are learning, receiving the information and eagerly implementing it. Although all bow to the omniscient educator, women's submissive role is especially conspicuous. But the prescribed "ought to be" does not hold up for long.
After so much lifelessness and restraint, Ellen Lauren breaks through with a sexually explicit monologue, but takes it one step further, and brings the microphone to audience members and starts asking detailed questions about their sex lives. Her improvisatory responses are hilarious; unfazed and unrestrained. Although audience tension rose, anticipating probing questions, the playfulness and vivacity of Lauren brought a different sort of ease with its seeming attack.
In addition to this revolt, after so much hometown goody-goody suffocation, the inevitable freak-out occurs: Stephen Duff Webber is mummified in duct-tape to a metal rod, Tom Nelis strips and wraps himself in a huge sheet of plastic, and Lauren collapses, shaking a mirror, as Makela Spielman reads through a litany of pseudo-adage-laden note cards.
Multiple times a hetero-normative dynamic is established and then broken. As fifties teens caught between "aw shucks" and "gee-gosh" attempt to follow what they know they should do and say, each is caressed by a group of their own sex.
An online suitability for marriage survey sequence is especially amusing. Lauren desperately blogs in a void by only a laptop screen light (one among many dynamic lighting choices by Brian H Scott). In a beat poet scene, Leon Ingulsrud movingly offers Charles Bukowski's "My Father" and Samuel Stricklen delivers Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." Ingulsrud squeakily draws out in messy black marker "reality show auditions" on a poster board, and what follows is a procession of mediocre attempts at attention grabbing. One by one, cell phones ring from a bucket, and each actor answers and enters into an intimate conversation that leads to a break-up: a choral cacophony of yells and whispers. Lauren gives a fantastic solo dance, bordered with moving a lamp, and simply mutters, "that's all I've got" as she walks back. J. Ed Araiza is an Indian immigrant boy embarrassed about struggling with English. Staring at the stars, Webber coldly tells his wife he is divorcing her. Her arms moving in slow motion, Akiko Aizawa creates an image simultaneously breathtaking and full of sadness.
Darron L West's sound design slips from inconspicuously supporting the action to taking center stage, like an equally balanced member of the ensemble to the on-stage actors.
Transitions between scenes have extensive set changes by the actors that feel just as essential to the action as the scenes themselves. They are precise and full of character.
In the end, the group lists off a jumble of images that could have been included in the production just as equally as images actually manifested. We are told this play itself is a work in progress, subject to constant alteration. After the curtain call, the audience is invited onto the stage, to arrange objects and be present in the space; to be a part of the development. Although SITI is a well established company, its work still feels like a new experiment. It's not safe or settled.
Charles Mee's brilliant writing/compilation gives us impressions of our developing identity as a complex series of people, places, things, and moments, none of which is all inclusive. Out of seeming chaos we make meaning. Pervasive stereotypes are subject to radical alteration with deliberate effort.
Director Anne Bogart: thank you for your clarity of vision.
I could not possibly describe every effective moment in this delightful mélange, but described some that struck me most. Any audience member might connect to any selection of scenes. Go to Dance Theatre Workshop and have a taste of this olio, and you won't regret it as long as you're interested in truth and beauty.