Theater

Genet’s Court Gestures

Anyone needing further proof that the current Off-Broadway theater scene is a timid place should go see The Blacks: A Clown Show at the Classical Theatre of Harlem and marvel that this starkly expressionistic, mind-fogging, and occasionally downright frightening play by Jean Genet ran for more than 1400 performances following its 1961 Gotham debut. Know what runs for more than 1400 performances these days? Tony ’n’ Tina’s Wedding.

It was perhaps only a matter of time before CTH, which so assiduously supports African American actors, turned its attention to The Blacks. Still, the choice was a brave one. Genet’s love of warring layers of truth runs amok here. A collection of blacks, possibly a troupe of actors, who may or may not have murdered a white woman, re-enact the killing before a jury of more blacks masquerading as white authority figures (queen, judge, missionary, etc.) for what appears to be the umpteenth time. But the performers are only acting being actors and often step into their true selves, of which they possess several versions. Meanwhile, something’s happening offstage that negates the importance of the whole ceremony.

The Blacks: never for the dull-witted.
photo: Christopher McElroen
The Blacks: never for the dull-witted.

Director Christopher McElroen—bolstered by a thoroughly committed cast and some stunning design work by costumer Kimberly Glennon and set and mask designer Anne Lommel—weaves these often confusingly jumbled realities together with an almost Robert Altman–like dexterity. Wheeled swivel seats come in handy for viewing the 360-degree, multilevel playing space. The show is often transfixing, sometimes awkward, and never for the dull-witted. Or the faint of heart: In the middle of the production is a piece of forced audience participation that would have set Artaud grinning. If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, Tony has a glass of cheap wedding champagne waiting for you in midtown. —Robert Simonson

The Dilemmas of a Horn

Words become notes and drumbeats; voices vibrate like plucked strings: Eyewitness Blues (Dance Theater Workshop) fuses speech with the wail of trumpets and throb of electric keyboard to make a Bronx ’hood sing the blues. Mildred Ruiz and Steven Sapp, who wrote and perform the vocal parts, collaborate with musician-composer-arrangers Carlos Pimentel and Paul Thompson to craft a mosaic of time and place. The loose narrative concerns Junior, horn player extraordinaire, who drops out of the neighbors’ sight. His mom, Mrs. McCollough, acts as the street’s watchdog. "Nosy," she "sits at the window, eyes empty, vacant void, elbows nailed to a pillow," while Mr. McCollough, a Vietnam vet, sings Dylan songs as he sweeps crack vials and blood from the park. Also wondering about Junior’s fate are a hot mama who lusts after "the tightness of his young ass," a grandma who sees the roots of their troubles in burning crosses and 'do-rags, and a Latina woman unearthing the boleros her mother sang.

As the piece unfolds in poems, Sapp unleashes a quick-fire rap that swirls, rich and witty, bristling with allusions that range from Moby Dick and Amadou Diallo to the Jackson Five. A charismatic performer, he moves fluidly, nimble of toe and tongue. Ruiz, in counterpoint, lets loose a husky blues voice and a gutsy portrayal of Latino angst, flavored with flamenco. Sometimes, though, the verbal torrent confuses; Ruiz and Sapp could have done more to distinguish their characters and voices. And often the language washes over you so fast, you can’t snare the meaning. But these are quibbles, like faulting a jazz quartet because their virtuoso improvisation makes the melody hard to hum. —Francine Russo

Dada Dumb

Sardines and ice cream. Eminem and the Pride Parade. Snowmen and space heaters. Some things, as everyone knows, just don't mix. In Who Murdered Love?—a "surreal Dada noir mystery" by Lissa Moira and Richard West at Theater for the New City—the oil and water, as it were, are spoof and conceptual drama: Ill-developed and vaguely staged concepts muddle the comedy to render the production beyond generic clarity, but short of emulsion.

The mystery, set in 1924, finds detective "Sham Shpeed" hired to locate artiste Dada Love, both a representation of dadaism and the vanished beau of heiress Honey Potts. Good acting saves the spoof: Joshua Koehn as Speed and Moira as his secretary relish their caricatures, pairing well-timed puns with proficient physical comedy. However, when they enter Potts's dream to look for Love, the throughline—the fade of dadaism and rise of surrealism in 1920s Europe—takes center stage. Moira's directorial solution to the challenge of personifying dada has Rob Eigenbroad clad in a unitard and party mask, leaping haphazardly around the stage. The dance ends up embodying experimental theatrical cliché more than anything Tzara had in mind. ("Nay, you've been de-Da-da'd," spouts Potts at one point.)

Both vignettes that introduce Who Murdered Love? aptly foreshadow the disaster to come. In Metamorphosex, a punk rocker bellows song lyrics that transform all the cockroaches in his apartment into people. In Daffodils for Duchamp, West, portraying Duchamp, sports a distractingly poor French accent ("Mon-sure") and plays guitar in a cacophonic duet with a violinist. He then wakes up and concludes the piece with the time-honored cliché "It was only a dream." Sadly, this evening at TNC was not. —Kilbane Porter

 
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