By Tom Sellar
By Emily Warner
By R.C. Baker
By Alexis Soloski
By Alexis Soloski
By R. C. Baker
By Alexis Soloski
By Tom Sellar
David Neumann deconstructs identity in less technologically ambitious ways in his Big Eater, but his edgy games with events and his absorption of material from a variety of disparate sources (films, ballets, books, TV shows, articles, YouTube, his own life, and more) disrupt any attempt of yours to process what youre seeing in any traditional way. The towering stack of askew folding chairs in one corner of the Kitchens black-box theater is a good symbol of the carefully arranged confusion. Two small mirrors, one set very high on the back wall, one very low, also tell you to take nothing for granted.
Here the question is how much homework you may have to do to understand Neumanns choices and what Big Eater meant to mean, as well as the related question: Should you need to do that?
Neumann is a gifted performer and choreographer (he doesnt appear in Big Eaterhimself, alas). He also has a sure sense of theatrical timing: when a performer should freeze, delay a reaction, go for broke; how long to hold a pause. The result is an excruciating, perplexing, sometimes entrancing and hilarious piece of entertainment. But what do you take away from it beside vivid memories of its shifting pace and wild moments, plus a slight knot in your brain? What is the whole thing?
I decide its my responsibility to try to figure it out. One of the interlocking narratives of Big Eateris drawn from the embarrassing YouTube video of actor David Hasselhoff, so fallen-down drunk he cant manage to eat a hamburger, while his young daughter (off camera) tries to get him to promise to stop drinking (another lingering question: Who shot and posted this 6-minute, 11-second scene?). Neumann lets us hear the sad conversation on tape, watch Andrew Dinwiddie and Will Rawls present twin images of the mumbling drunk and his falling-apart hamburger, see Natalie Agee channel the daughter to harangue Dinwiddie, hear Rawls and Dinwiddie deliver the daughters anxious lines in brisk unison. Hasselhoffs poses, words, and gestures recur in various ways through the piece, along with a host of other references.
Threaded through this material are visions of Fred Neumann (David Neumanns actor father) in a bucolic landscape, delivering snippets of textwhy a three-legged stool wobbles less than a four-legged one, how many ropes you need to hang yourself efficientlyas well as voicing deeper, vaguer thoughts, such as the sky is as alien to me as I to myself. Reenactments of passages from the ballet Giselle crop up. So does a flurry of violent fragments from the 1980s television crime series Knight Rider, in which Hasselhoff starred. Then theres a panel, whose assembled members are so lethargic thatdespite chairperson Weena Paulys business-like brisknessa dialogue about life and death and our dreams exceeding our grasp dissipates, and everyone wanders off.
The performersDinwiddie, Rawls, Pauly, Kennis Hawkins, and Neal Medlynare profoundly talented at all this smart, mixed-up madnesshauling chairs around, changing their personas midstream. Medlyn, wearing sparkly trousers, a shabby fur vest, and no shirt (costumes by Kaye Voyce), pauses occasionally to stare at us like a deer caught in the headlights and daring anyone to run him down. Its a pleasure to watch Pauly doing a slow handstand to Adolphe Adams music for Giselle, or to see Medlyn (a spectacular performer-as-nerd) attempt the hero Albrechts desperate beating-feet passage as the Wilis try to dance him to death and Agee, his Giselle, spin until she faints from dizziness. The balancing acts with chairs and tables and the rushing around never entirely stop.
At one point, a reverse black-and-white image of forest is projected to fill the whole backdrop (video by Richard Sylvarnes)an imaginative image of Giselles haunted woods. But it also refers to the full-color landscape in the monitor. Once when passing out is being depicted onstage, we see white-haired F. Neumann stretched out on his green grass (Neumann mentioned in a recent interview for The New York Times that alcohol played a role in his own family life). At the end, Medlyn sits in a tiny leather armchair, repeating (and maybe twisting) some of Hasselhoffs words, while Agee plays daughter cum shrink. Medlyn is deeply depressed and, when pressed for an explanation, finally says with difficulty, I dont have me in my life. And then, something like, Now its dough and drinking.
I come away from all this with the bits and pieces of what Ive seen whirling around in my head, as mysteriously connected and disconnected as the human and technological elements of Koosil-jas work. I love the fact that on the Web, you can find Big Eater defined as a trope as used in popular culture and further down advertised as an air purifier. Neumanns Big Eater is, in a way, about an artist sucking up all that comes his way and trying to refine it. Its also about outsized, possibly self-destructive appetitesnot just for alcohol and food, but for fame, love, and death.