Hide Your Jugular, It's the Blood-Sucking Diva

"To make theater," Hot Keys mastermind Jeff Weiss memorably declared some years ago, "all you need is a candle and something to say." Without distorting the simplicity of this edict, the time has come to qualify it. Too often theater offers shows consisting of grotesque candles that bury tiny somethings-to-say under piles of melted wax, birthday candles inadequately illuminating somethings-to-say better left unsaid, or—to hyperextend the metaphor—a follow-spot and nothing to say. Perhaps the modified ingredient list should be a candle, something to say, and a coherent (or at least consistently incoherent) way of saying it. Form doesn't necessarily have to follow content, but neither has any excuse to show up late and drunk.

The two shows that bring this problem to mind are Ethan Sandler's solo =celebration and the multimedia "vampyre opera" Night Vision, by Fred Ho and Ruth Margraff. =celebration's premise is not very complex, and may even be too simple for the questions it raises. Inspired by Disney's revamped 42nd Street, the stuttery, charming Sandler retells fragments of a journey he took down I-95 to Florida, his final destination being Disney's elaborately planned suburb Celebration. Along the way, he stops at several other utopias of varying nightmarishness, including Amish Country and South of the Border.

On top of his simple premise Sandler heaps a hodgepodge of storytelling methods. He slaloms from a straightforward monologue in which he describes the Disney store (ending with a dramatic reading of the receipt), to a reenactment of a tacky Christmas pageant in Amish Country in which he plays all the parts (demonstrating an impressive ability to flip between characters), to an imagined scenario where he converses with the ghost of a run-over German shepherd.

The decline and fall of the roamin' vampire: Ho and Margraff's Night Vision
photo: Carol Rosegg
The decline and fall of the roamin' vampire: Ho and Margraff's Night Vision

Details

Night Vision
By Fred Ho and Ruth Margraff
HERE
145 Sixth Avenue
212-647-0202

=celebration
By Josie Dickson and Ethan Sandler
The Houseman Studios
450 West 42nd Street
212-592-4005

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Too often, Sandler's quirky marginalia only graze any of several points ripe for the making about America's uncomfortable blend of consumerism and utopia. At times he appears afraid to offer any observations or conclusions at all, preferring, for example, to elaborately describe one of Celebration's tract homes, miming the positions of various objects in the room, and in summary marveling at the fact that a stylist has designed it to look lived-in. Delayed at South Carolina's souvenir capital South of the Border, Sandler plays himself and his conscience locked in a dispute over whether or not to buy a small statuette of Pedro, South of the Border's stereotypical Mexican mascot. Yet this is the same conscience that just made a hasty aside about the discomfort of being a Jew in the company of a German shepherd's ghost. It appears that Sandler's uneasiness with modern utopias stems at times from his fear of their prefabricated sterile quality and at others from his fear of being excluded from them as a Jew. But even that small an interpretation feels forced, since Sandler only hints at such themes underneath all the performance shtick. What's the purpose of returning from a fantasyland to create a play that describes it without truly examining it? To one-up Disney?

imagehe seldom-plumbed fantasyland of the vampyre opera, at least as it appears in Night Vision, goes by so fast and unintelligibly as to deny you the opportunity to interpret. Conscious of their confusing method, the creators provide a synopsis, though one that reads like a comic book. Whatever message Night Vision conveys is even more hidden than Sandler's, since the audience's attention is distracted by a wall-sized video screen with two televisions on either side of it, a faux-DJ setup on the front chassis of a limo with working headlights, several closed-circuit video cameras and mixers, a bunch of microphones, loud music skipping through every pop genre from the last 30 years, and boisterous acting and singing styles. These days, the multimedia is the message. Andrew Hill's murky greenish lighting design and Nancy Brous's costumes, particularly the Middle Eastern chain-mail getup worn by Daphne Gaines as Ajlinna id-Dibayih, the Vampyre, create the atmosphere of some apocalyptic kung-fu movie, without the same silliness. A vampire story is buried by all the tech, albeit one in which the vampire is a 2000-year-old diva who stabs her victims with a microphone. Vampire stories generally boil down to the same thing: Vampire desires blood, vampire drinks blood, vampire turns others into vampires. People make several attempts to kill vampire, then succeed. But with Night Vision's spectacular form, who needs content?

 
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