Dogged and Castled

It hasn't been easy, but I think I've finally puzzled out how Ecco Porco came to be. Here's my theory: While we were all distracted over Christmas by wars and terrorism, somehow—I'm not asking any questions—Santa's sack ended up in the possession of Lee Breuer. Like any self-respecting downtown artist, Breuer spread it out on the floor of P.S. 122 and invited everybody over to play. The results, as you might expect, are murky, chaotic, and crowded, with little breathing room and even less structure. But you've never seen such an amazing assemblage of playthings. Anyone with a working adult mind who still likes to have his or her child-sense gratified at the theater will have a wonderful time, despite the murk, the chaos, and the length—which outdoes even Tony Kushner in its playfully word-drunk sprawl.

I'd better add, quickly, that Ecco Porco is emphatically not a children's show, though many of Breuer's techniques here, some of his colleagues, and his commitment to an art of free-flying fluidity, make it contiguous to his kiddie-department masterwork, Peter and Wendy (which reopens in February at the New Victory). But unless your children are ready for a four-hour examination of psychological torment, political turmoil, and philosophic questing, culminating in a representation of a tantric sex workshop, you'd better leave them home for Ecco Porco. That a piece so heavy in its topics should be so light in its spirit is the essence of Breuer's approach; the jumble of elements is how he gets away with it.

The frame of the piece is a 12-step program—or rather, a group of actors putting on a play about a 12-step program—for troubled souls of all species. Though the nominal central character is a learned pig, represented as entirely human, Gonzo Porco Ph.D. (Frederick Neumann) soon finds his focus being stolen by the relationship of a dog and her master, Rose and John (puppets manipulated and given voice by various performers)—figures familiar from earlier Breuer pieces, chunks of text from which are embedded in Ecco Porco. Professor Porco's intellectual searches, as extensive and erratic as his abusive paternalism at home, somehow involve Orson Welles, at lunch with Warren Beatty, pitching a movie on the KGB's murder of the great Russian stage director Vsevolod Meyerhold. This leads to digressions within digressions, like Porco himself being tortured by a sort of familial KGB (including a sinister Comrade Dotcomskaya), or Welles narrating a climactic scene from his film of Kafka's The Trial, staged in a demented manner that suggests the Marx Brothers headlining at the Cabaret Voltaire. Nor is this all, since the evening ends with Neumann becoming the differently demented Friedrich Nietzsche, whose philosophic autobiography, Ecce Homo, was the inspiration for Breuer's title.

Ecco Porco: puppet states of enlightenment
photo: Richard Termine
Ecco Porco: puppet states of enlightenment


Ecco Porco
By Lee Breuer
P.S. 122
150 First Avenue

The Castle
By Max Brod and others,
from the novel by Franz Kafka
Manhattan Ensemble Theatre
55 Mercer Street

Sense can be located within Breuer's maelstrom, but no reviewer has the time to parse it out or the space to explicate it. I hope whoever does the inevitable book-length academic study will have the wit to see the fun in the piece as well as its intellectual substance. Meantime, there's little else for a critic to do—Breuer has even anticipated us there, by inventing his own mock-John Simon review, and then having the Simonish critic who delivers it (played by a woman) machine-gunned. While waiting for New York magazine's review of this moment, we less machine-gun-worthy critics should praise the patience and daring of Breuer's leading actors, and their breathtaking ability to shift feelings and switch voices in enormous blocks of text without their intensity ever flagging. It should be no surprise that, in addition to Neumann, I'm talking about Ruth Maleczech, Karen Kandel, Black-Eyed Susan, Terry O'Reilly, Honora Ferguson, and two fresh presences: Clove Galilee (Breuer and Maleczech's daughter) and Maude Mitchell. With its mix of narration, stylized gesture, and multiple voicing, what they do here isn't exactly acting: Call it magic literalism. That might be the best term for Breuer's overall approach, too. The world he creates neither represents nor parallels ours; it's interactive with us, like a funhouse mirror that reaches out to tap you on the shoulder.

More Kafka, not without a touch of Breuer's demented-vaudeville style, is on view in The Castle, the opening production of the Manhattan Ensemble Theatre's first full season. With its comfortable space, lush production values, and large-cast plays well stocked with familiar names, this company clearly plans to do things on a lavish scale. Which is fine with me—the works they've picked deserve the best—as long as they realize that lavishness isn't an artistic goal but a way by which you reach one. Nobody knows exactly why K., the hero of Kafka's novel, so desperately wants to get to the castle that employs him, but it's a safe bet he doesn't just want to admire the furnishings. And the audience, like K., is in the theater for more than material reasons.

This is more a warning than a complaint, since in fact The Castle offers a fair amount of the quality we call Kafkaesque. A translator and two adapters have worked over the script by Max Brod, Kafka's friend and literary executor, who adapted the novel for the stage in 1953 (and who might have been given a program bio). Despite the many hands involved, the tone of the writing is fairly consistent and the storytelling lucid—Kafka smoothed down and simplified but still Kafka. Where matters get tonally wobbly is in Scott Schwartz's direction, which sometimes evokes Kafka's weird, nerve-racked atmosphere beautifully, but too often settles for something brasher and cruder that evokes musicals of the kind Schwartz is better known for directing. And whatever else The Castle may be, Bat Boy it isn't.

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