Songs Without Words

Paola Styron and George De La Peña in Vers La Flamme: in lieu of naturalism, body music
photo: Jon Gilbert Fox
Paola Styron and George De La Peña in Vers La Flamme: in lieu of naturalism, body music

The oddest part of the anomaly is that Clarke doesn't really seem to need Chekhov. Except for the first story, the familiar "Lady With the Lapdog," her preoccupations hardly match his, and his stories don't adapt well as scenarios. Yet the evening seems complete and sustained as a— distinctly un-Chekhovian— view of life. Encased in Michael Yeargan's stunningly off-angled, pale blue set, lit with subtle grades of hot light and shadow by Stephen Strawbridge, the action builds, barely stopping between stories, till it seems to take on its own authority, as if the movements were telling Clarke what to do rather than vice versa. Even at its most outrageous— the hilariously gross depictions of sex in "The Darling," or the use of a child's coffin as a Graham-like prop in "Enemies"— the staging seems all of a piece; these are merely the extreme points on the scale of a richly unified style. If it doesn't fit neatly into any preexisting category, that simply means Martha Clarke has quietly extended the bounds of what's possible in theater, and requires a new category all her own. That she seems to need cultural touchstones from the past as stepping stones to each piece— Chekhov and Scriabin here, Bosch and Brueghel or Schnitzler and Mahler there— is hardly an objection. When we make something brand new, the past is all we have to stand on.

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