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 you’re seeing in any traditional way. The towering stack of askew folding chairs in one corner of the Kitchen’s 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 Neumann’s 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 doesn’t appear in Big Eater himself, 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?

Ava Heller, Elise Knudson, and Melissa Guerrero in Koosil-ja’s "Blocks of Continuality/Body, Image, and Algorithm."
Yi-Chun Wu
Ava Heller, Elise Knudson, and Melissa Guerrero in Koosil-ja’s "Blocks of Continuality/Body, Image, and Algorithm."
Andrew Dinwiddie, Neal Medlyn, Natalie Agee, and Weena Pauly  
in David Neumann’s "Big Eater."
Paula Court
Andrew Dinwiddie, Neal Medlyn, Natalie Agee, and Weena Pauly in David Neumann’s "Big Eater."


Dance Theater Workshop
March 3 through 6

David Neumannís Big Eater The Kitchen
March 4 through 13

I decide it’s my responsibility to try to figure it out. One of the interlocking narratives of Big Eater is drawn from the embarrassing YouTube video of actor David Hasselhoff, so fallen-down drunk he can’t 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 daughter’s anxious lines in brisk unison. Hasselhoff’s 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 Neumann’s actor father) in a bucolic landscape, delivering snippets of text—why a three-legged stool wobbles less than a four-legged one, how many ropes you need to hang yourself efficiently—as 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 there’s a panel, whose assembled members are so lethargic that—despite chairperson Weena Pauly’s business-like briskness—a dialogue about life and death and our dreams exceeding our grasp dissipates, and everyone wanders off.

The performers—Dinwiddie, Rawls, Pauly, Kennis Hawkins, and Neal Medlyn—are profoundly talented at all this smart, mixed-up madness—hauling 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. It’s a pleasure to watch Pauly doing a slow handstand to Adolphe Adam’s music for Giselle, or to see Medlyn (a spectacular performer-as-nerd) attempt the hero Albrecht’s 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 Giselle’s 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 Hasselhoff’s words, while Agee plays daughter cum shrink. Medlyn is deeply depressed and, when pressed for an explanation, finally says with difficulty, “I don’t have me in my life.” And then, something like, “Now it’s dough and drinking.”

I come away from all this with the bits and pieces of what I’ve seen whirling around in my head, as mysteriously connected and disconnected as the human and technological elements of Koosil-ja’s 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. Neumann’s Big Eater is, in a way, about an artist sucking up all that comes his way and trying to refine it. It’s also about outsized, possibly self-destructive appetites—not just for alcohol and food, but for fame, love, and death.

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