Theater

Four Medeas—Bad News for Children

Director Ibrahim Quraishi and Compagnie Faim de Siècle, a performance company based in Paris and New York, have teamed up to create Shattered Boxes (the Kitchen), an adaptation of Heiner Müller's Medeamaterial trilogy. In this sprawling piece, four actresses play the role of Medea in separate interactive installations, each reflecting different aspects of her insanity.

Under Quraishi, Müller's ruined landscapes become a meticulously crafted wasteland that dazzles more than inspires. A glassy wall and mirrored floor lead us to the main performance area, where slide projectors click away and broken videos flicker on the walls. Wooden cubes of different sizes are tossed about, spewing light everywhere. Piled up on the playing area, TV monitors display images of fuzzy, fragmented bodies. As if this visual bombardment were not enough, howls, wails, and music flood the room. The group's intention is to "activate" the space and make the audience "disappear" within it. That's certainly made clear when the performers sing, crawl, and even break-dance around the audience, Jason shoving his hand into people's faces.

Shattered Boxes assigns the heroines such abstract roles—they supposedly represent Flow, Rupture, Fragmentation, and Memory— that it's hopeless to follow what's behind all their twirling without the program notes. The highly stylized acting, if meant to be elusive, comes across as simply obscure. Unfortunately, the title's blank quality sometimes feels entirely appropriate. That said, most of the cast still muster emotional heat. Despite the show's shaky focus, Shattered Boxesis worth seeing if only to gape at the ravishing contortions of Arthur Aviles's Jason, or to delight in the beautiful, soothing voice of Imani Uzuri's Medea. —Christiane Riera Salomon


Look Homeward, Wolfe

In 1922, Harvard grad student Thomas Wolfe wrote an overlong, ambitious play called Niggertown. A sarcastic invective against his Asheville, North Carolina, hometown's racial politics, it ran four hours before cuts and had a cast of 44, many in blackface. At best, the play—later renamed Welcome to Our City—was snarky liberal propaganda with a patina of paternalism, in some ways reminiscent of the work of DuBose Heyward. At worst—well, imagine the play today's white liberal academic might pen about racial conflict if it were full of similar sound and unedited fury. True to the wobbly text, the Mint Theater Company has mounted Welcome to Our City with a weird sloppiness enjoyable for all the wrong reasons.

The plot is blunt. A territorial dispute erupts in Altamont, as Mr. Rutlege, whose family lost all but their good name in the Civil War, attempts to buy back his estate from former slaves in order to sell it to whites at inflated prices. But not all of the black people fall for the scheme, least of all Dr. Johnson, the town's one wealthy black man. Tensions mount, and a riot breaks out.

In his one stylistic quirk, director Jonathan Bank denies the actors Southern accents, so that the play's perky real estate agents crying, "Progress! Progress! Progress!" recall today's Silicon Alley dotcom-ers. But the Mint's up-South Bizarroworld quickly disintegrates (so to speak). Northern and Southern racism are different animals, after all. Nevertheless, you get the impression that the no-accent decision was a smart last-ditch effort to rescue the play. The fascinating heirloom is murdered almost delightfully by a wildly uneven cast. Scarily uninvested, some going up on their lines even after a week of shows, the actors clunk through Our City like sumo wrestlers. Yet perhaps there is no more appropriate metaphor for the awkwardness of U.S. race relations than bad acting shared equally by blacks and whites alike. —James Hannaham


Aural Fixation

Don't look here for any elaborate scientific explanation of the electronic marionette in Theater of the Ears (La MaMa), one of the Henson Festival's more bafflingly avant-garde offerings. While the puppet's base resembles a table stand, and the midsection X-rays of human lungs, the figure's changing expression led me to the foolhardy notion that the sculpted head was pasted over with some kind of revolutionary hologram. In fact, the face is actually the result of an internal video projection reflected off a strategically concealed mirror. (Cancel my application to puppetry school!) It was easy to identify the remote-controlled box-speaker cars that revolved around the stationary dummy. What those little buggers were blaring out, however, was largely indecipherable. Was Theater of the Ears trying to make me feel deaf?

A bouillabaisse of texts by the supermodernist French playwright Valére Novarina consists mainly of nonsense names, body parts and functions, and the kind of post-Derrida drivel about language that only a hard-up graduate student could love. Perhaps something was lost in Allen S. Weiss's translation. In any case, the piece ditches character and coherence for garbled theoretical shards connecting speech, eating, and defecation. (Better not bring the kids.) Weiss, who directed alongside set and puppet designer Zaven Paré, has created a dimly lit, fog-strewn soundscape upon which to impose Novarina's esoteric words. To his credit, he succeeds in achieving his stated goal, offered as a program note: "Eschew communication, indicate the hapax; ridicule narrative, celebrate solecism." This may call for a puppeteer as discreet as Mark Sussman, but does it also require an audience? —Charles McNulty

 
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