Device Squads

Currently on View: Puppets, Politics, Pianologue, and Peonage

The thundering stampede of new plays having abated with the arrival of prize-giving season, the New York theater doesn't pause, but uses its breathing space to show off other forms of stage fauna, starting with the best actors automatically disqualified for acting awards: puppets. A biennial festival that gets bigger every second autumn isn't enough for these heartless creatures—now they want spring as well. Luckily, they're not so narcissistic as most actors, so their shows tend to be short; brevity is the soul of puppetry.

Don Marquis (1878-1937), novelist, playwright, and light versifier, invented archy the cockroach and his pals from "the under side" in 1916, as a quick way to fill Marquis's humor column in The New York Sun: archy, a "vers libre bard" who has been reborn as a cockroach, expressed his view of life in uncapitalized (roaches can't hold down the shift key), unpunctuated, straggling lines several times a week till 1927, when his misadventures appeared in book form, with delightful illustrations by George Herriman (better known for creating Krazy Kat). The work stayed popular through my childhood—it was even made into a musical, with Carol Channing (on disc) and Eartha Kitt (onstage) as archy's boon companion, mehitabel the alley cat. The current adaptation, Communications From a Cockroach (Here), a collaboration of Ralph Lee's Mettawee River Company and Scott Cargle's Shakespeare Project, makes an excellent start at restoring it to New York's Swiss-cheesy memory, always amnesic about its own best pleasures. (The show, which closes at Here this week, will tour city parks all summer.)

Possibly because the 1957 musical (coauthored by some guy named Mel Brooks) retains partial rights to Marquis's work, the new adaptation pokes into odd and unexpected realms of archyana. There's no attempt to shape an overriding story; the effect is much like seeing a set of newspaper columns acted out. Some of the material, including a series of swipes at Prohibition, feels dated. Other pieces have a fresh topicality: Marquis spoofed the 1927 NYPD crackdown on "bedroom" plays that got Mae West 10 days on Rikers, by having archy imagine a play in which all the characters are beds. Lee's hilarious realization of this premise—the high point of the 75-minute evening—turns a blast from the past into a smart contemporary kick at both local decency commissions and dehumanized "conceptual" ideas of theater.

Communications From a Cockroach: blast from the pest
photo: Richard Termine
Communications From a Cockroach: blast from the pest

Puppets being so human, Lee's handheld figures easily bring off Marquis's larger dual joke—that insects and other verminous critters are just like us, and that we, from their low-angle vantage point, are a batch of overgrown, bullying ephemeridae. Apart from the drama of the squabbling beds, the work's two peaks are a battle between archy's nemesis, freddy the rat, and a visiting tarantula; and a scene in which archy, having strayed from the newspaper office, becomes a source of marital strife to a suburban married couple (cleverly built smaller than the insects and rodents). The four young manipulators, who also speak and sing the text, are unsteady in the pitch department but otherwise excellent. Neil Kirkwood's appealing score, '50s-style laid-back bop for three players, evokes a handy midpoint between Marquis's time and our own. Marquis himself, incidentally, probably knew nothing about Kafka, whose famous story of a human transmogrified into a roach was first published the year of archy's invention. Clearly, it isn't just lack of capital letters and commas that makes his humor seem so modern.

Stravinsky's Petrushka, on the other hand, has always seemed a classical, possibly even an ancient, story, something like an upside-down Othello, its "modern" twist being that its characters begin as puppets and end shedding real blood. The music mirrors this reality jump by scoring its folklike tunes with biting bitonalities, proleptic cross-rhythms, and compulsive ostinati, like an old family recipe in a tingly new sauce. Basil Twist's version (Clark Studio, Lincoln Center), as richly flamboyant as Stravinsky's festive harmonies, caught the work's freewheeling spirit wonderfully: Here even the onion domes danced, and the three characters moved with unheard-of flexibility. (The piece required nine manipulators.) What Twist couldn't do, puppets being puppets, was convey the transformation to humanity: His scenario explained that Petrushka, slain by the Moor, "escapes his puppet slavery through death's release. His spirit carries on to dance and love." In performance, though, the effect was to reaffirm Petrushka's puppetness; no tears are shed for characters who carry on eternally, a way in which puppets are superior to us. Still, Petrushka isn't a piece based on terror and tears; the forays into abstraction by which Twist tried to convey his hero's emotional torment were vivid enough to justify their presence as simple decoration. Julia and Irina Elkina, sister duo pianists, supported Twist's spectacle with a gritty, lively performance of Stravinsky's score, executing it a little splashily at times, but summoning nearly as many colors from their keyboards as you normally hear in the later and more commonly played orchestral version. They opened the evening with a crisp, smart reading of the composer's 1944 Sonata for Two Pianos, wittily accompanied by Twist with a set of rectangular shapes performing what might best be described as a Busby Berkeley homage to Josef Albers.


Right-angled but never rigid in its logic, Diana of Dobson's(Mint Theater) is another tasty sprig in the Mint's growing patch of rediscoveries. A 1908 comedy by the British feminist Cicely Hamilton (1872-1958), ithasn't been played here since its original unveiling, and deserves more notice. Though demonstrably indebted to Shaw and Granville Barker, it has a feisty charm of its own, and may even have repaid the debt by influencing both Misalliance and The Madras House, which postdate it.

Hamilton's heroine, the impoverished orphan daughter of a country doctor, is trapped in the grinding peonage of pre-union sales clerks until a tiny legacy allows her a month's escape: She goes to a Swiss resort, where her outspokenness charms both a peer's debt-ridden younger son and a haberdashery magnate from one of whose chain stores she's been fired. Refusing to marry either, she reveals the shocking truth of her low-class status and flees back to London—where one of the two men duly proves both his love and his willingness to work, just in time to rescue her from starvation on the Thames embankment. This urban Cinderella story bursts with Laborite morals, which Hamilton doesn't hesitate to draw, complete with statistics, but she does her drawing with the elegant hand of a skilled sketch artist, speedily and cleanly, displaying both compassion and humor. The whole picture's there in her swift strokes, needing only to be brought to life. Unhappily, as often happens at the Mint, most of the actors aren't up to the task of animating it, and Eleanor Reissa's direction seems compelled to signal the show's comic identity constantly, with broad overacting and heavy gesticulation, from which only Maitreya Friedman as a sickly shop girl and Glynis Bell as a scheming dowager escape into relatively human performances. Luckily, Hamilton's play is so intriguing that the disappointment is easily outweighed by the sense of discovery.


George Gershwin was a miserable, lonely, underappreciated man, who always got rotten reviews and was shunned by millions for being a Jew. And if you believe any of that, you probably deserve to sit through Hershey Felder's George Gershwin Alone (Helen Hayes Theatre), in which Felder plays the piano competently, acts uncomfortably, and sings with a piquant lack of accuracy as to pitch. He also manages to get a goodish number of facts wrong and to scant some of the more interesting aspects of Gershwin's output. It would all be easier to take if he didn't spend the evening turning Gershwin into a Gloomy Gus out of a German Expressionist movie. As writer and actor, Felder commits the cardinal error: playing the end at the beginning. Imagine the depressive Gershwin would have been if he'd known he was going to die at age 39, and you can imagine this show.

Blast!(Broadway Theatre), an evening of choreographed routines for a largely male drum and bugle corps, is essentially a piece of softcore gay porn: lines of fresh-faced, hunky young men in body shirts and tight pants gyrating in rhythm and swivelling their brass instruments—as a riposte to downtown's Naked Boys Singing!, a sort of Clothed Boys Blowing. The gay element is prevalent in the music, which samples Barber's Medea, a bit of Bernstein, and two works by Copland (including a chunk of Appalachian Spring—the evening's also an homage to Martha Graham, who commissioned both that and the Barber). For a finale, the cast marches out to meet you in the lobby, where fast talkers can chat them up for possible future dates. They probably need your money, too: This reprehensible enterprise is carried on as non-union peonage, with the performers, who function simultaneously as cast and onstage orchestra, making less in eight performances than I will for writing this one article—and my paper's not famous for its munificence. I think it's time they played the hit tune from the end of Waiting for Lefty.

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