Theater

Time out of Mind

The lady in Victorian satins lifts her red petticoats to a cancan beat as a leather-fringed cowboy-cum-guitar struts by serenading his horse—a voluptuous woman in equine costume. Meanwhile, in the rear window—puppet show-style—a champion swimmer lifts her arms over blue cloth waves, and a Dickensian bookseller in top hat and tails struggles to balance his stacks of tomes. Welcome to the behind-the-looking-glass world that flourishes in the minds of Alzheimer's patients. A dazzling piece of stagecraft, Anne Basting's TimeSlips (Here) delights even as it casts poignant, terrifying shadows.

Based on Basting's storytelling workshops with dementia victims, the play begins with five patients in various stages of the disease—some vacant, some wisecracking, all anxious—in session with a nurse. They cannot answer questions like "Who can tell me where we are?" But when she shows them a photo, they shout out disassociated bits that fuse into a tale.

TimeSlips: swimming through memory
Photo: Tim Atkinson
TimeSlips: swimming through memory

"My mother always warned me about cowboys," giggles Marie, who in the play's fantasy main section becomes Rex's lascivious horse. As they unfold, the patients' stories blur and merge. Each repeats variations on set routines—the dancer slyly confides Parisian rumors that she has ostrich legs; the cowboy and his amóre banter suggestively on the way to the barn. As in dreams, the events make no sense, but the emotions behind them do—loss and fear and longing.

As their disease progresses, the group's circular rituals—desperate strategies to maintain control—fragment. The cowboy endlessly repeats the first few words of his tune, unable to remember the rest as his frustrated lover presses on with their seduction ritual, leaving silent spaces for his responses. Finally, she flings her arms about him and sobs.

A remarkable ensemble (Hope Clarke, Jodie Lynne McClintock, Sheriden Thomas, John Freimann, Michael Shelle, Judith Van Buren) makes this heartbreak--and much else—visceral. Under Christopher Bayes's inspired direction, the stage constantly sizzles with color, music, and motion, the work of an inventive design team (David Korins, Christianne Myers, and Diane D. Fairchild). At one moment these bizarre creatures may be waltzing together to "Bicycle Built for Two," at another, circling like mechanical figures to music-box chimes. Korins's chameleon set brilliantly embodies the play's themes. Its hinged, translucent walls allow rooms to change shape; its cartoon-like window backdrops shimmy down, slide by, or collide. Characters are just as likely to clamber through a skyscraper window as sail through a door. It's a world where you cannot get a hold on reality's slippery shapes. You should see TimeSlips not because it will teach you about the survival of dementia patients' core selves—though it will—but because it is a spellbinding work of imagination. —Francine Russo


Everyone Was Kung-Fu Fighting

A dozen bodies in motion—male and female, Asian, Latino, African-Chinese-Caribbean, and white—dominated Fred Ho's Once Upon a Time in Chinese America (BAM Next Wave, through November 11). Language played a relatively small role, most of it—in Chinese dialect with American asides—coming from the mouth of narrator Shyaporn Theerakulstit, a charming scamp wearing a greatcoat and felt hat.

Ho composed the eclectic score (largely jazz, riffing on pop tunes, nursery rhymes, and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game") and played in and conducted the good combo that hovered behind a scrim at the back of the BAM Harvey's open stage. The playbill says he's a retired hand-to-hand combat specialist trained in stealth assault techniques; he wrote the vestigial script with playwright Ruth Margraff.

Their plot, derived from a 17th-century Chinese fable, follows the foundling girl Gar Man Jang (played by Kathleen Cruz). She's raised by Shaolin monks who, though she's a kung fu adept, make her wash the monastery floor. She runs away in protest and sets out on a life of violent and heretical acts.

The piece (which still seemed very much a work in progress) was a kind of martial arts pageant. "To subdue your enemy without fighting is the highest skill," proclaimed the narrator. The talk was of peaceful revolution, but the action was kung fu, tai chi, and boxing, seasoned with hip-hop and some electric boogaloo. The accents may have been Chinese, but the cadences were rap. Laughs came at the expense of the Chinese opera-style kung fu fighter, R. Scott Parker, who mimed and mugged and also whipped off astonishing kicks and leaps and landed in a dazzling split.

Ho, Margraff, and director Mira Kingsley seem to want to mobilize a saga of intrigue among a new crop of cross-cultural, interspecies kung fu superheroes, but they're outgunned by the sheer physical prowess of their cast. This "martial arts ballet" works as spectacle but never resolves into coherent storytelling. It's a picaresque tale populated by local martial arts champs with a jones for theater and an eye on the action-adventure film market. So far, Once Upon a Time has the charmingly ditsy flavor of a community theater production ("Wow!" exclaims the narrator after a deft stretch of capoeira-inflected kickboxing). Perhaps as its creators buff their tale prior to their upcoming national tour, they'll manage to endow it with more significant form. —Elizabeth Zimmer

A related festival of martial arts on film, "Dance of the Dragon," continues at the BAMcinématek through December 16. On Thursday at BAMcafé Live, Ho and Margraff show excerpts from Night Vision: Vampyre Opera, a piece inspired in part by Hong Kong action cinema.

 
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