The Altoona Dada Society Presents The Velvet Gentleman
nytheatre.com review by Richard Lovejoy
August 13, 2010
If you are interested in knowing more about Dada, you can start with the Wikipedia page or see one of the Dada manifestos. The Altoona Dada Society Presents The Velvet Gentlemen, as a way of warning, is not a play that has much of anything to do with Dada. It is actually the story of a troupe of performers from Altoona, Pennsylvania putting on a found bio-play about composer Erik Satie (more information on Satie can be found here).
The opening moment features one of the actors in the company, Frank Rector (played by Robert Leeds) entering before he should as the venue director is still giving us the pre-show speech. He then notices his mistake and exaggeratedly retreats offstage. This could have been a great comic bit, if it wasn't so exaggerated. A simple exit with less commentary from Leeds would have been quite funny, and it would have properly set the stage for the moment which immediately follows—by far the best one in the show (I won't spoil it). I found myself immediately excited at the prospect of seeing more in the vein of this second moment, but unfortunately, The Altoona Dada Society Presents The Velvet Gentlemen contains far more moments like the first—potentially promising material that just isn't executed.
I must confess that I came into the play expecting it to have at least some Dada elements to it. Even with the framing story being realistic and straightforward as a narrative, the Satie scenes could have been more Dada-inspired. There is little to nothing in them that seems Dada-esque. Sure, they're chronologically out of order (somewhat), but they still end up feeling quite traditional.
The script suffers from an overabundance of exposition. Dada is not about exposition. Dada does not explain itself. There are numerous moments throughout the script where the audience is told what they just saw, and why they saw it. Between the Satie scenes from the found play, the troupe—in a remarkably presentational way—explains their backstage dramas. The bulk of it never rings true at all, or never goes anywhere. For example, early on, we are told that Ben (John-Patrick Driscoll) is upset that Johnson Chong (Zachary Hicks) is playing Satie. Ben is the star of the troupe and feels he could have played the part. After being brought up, this information promptly vanishes, never to be touched upon again. The script ambles about in a manner that leads me to suspect that there is a lot that could be fixed with additional drafts.
Satie's music is very ambling and light—in the play he talks about "furniture music"—blocks of music that can be played in any order, a kind of background music that can tuned out or tuned in as one chooses. Perhaps director Kevin Hale is attempting to do this with The Altoona Dada Society Presents The Velvet Gentlemen. It is easy to justify the lazy nature of some of the vignettes—after all, we're watching The Altoona Dada Society, a second rate company from Pennsylvania, not a polished, professional theatre company. Besides, Satie's music is very detached, so can't the work being done onstage mimic that quality? Unfortunately, as it is currently constructed, it just doesn't work. To make such a choice the piece would need to be more cohesive.
There is a hypothetical, platonic ideal version of this play somewhere buried in the current script that successfully mimics Satie's musical aesthetic in the way the scenes flow together. There is another hypothetical version of this play where we see a naturalistic framing story surrounding a completely embraced, bizarre work of true Dada; and we get to explore an interesting tension between traditional narrative and a howling, absurd anti-art work of Dada brilliance. Sadly, the current version of The Altoona Dada Society Presents The Velvet Gentlemen is only just scratching the surface of a myriad of fascinating possibilities. The concept is there, but sadly the research and execution are severely lacking.