Avant-Garde January! It's Koltes, the TEAM, Toshiki Okada, and, er, Ira Glass
It’s easy for Americans to feel intimidated when faced with the might of the European experimental tradition. Many continental companies enjoy generous state subsidies; our artists scrabble for private funding and juggle day jobs. European theater artists have challenged the centrality of plot, character, language; we fiddled with genre. They continue to question the limits of theatrical performance; we take our clothes off. Actually, they take their clothes off a lot, too.
But with the exception of a few Turks and a Pole, performers from here and abroad remained more or less dressed in the first week of the fashionable festivals tied to the annual APAP conference—Under the Radar, COIL, Other Forces, American Realness, etc. Yet several pieces, despite their countries of origin, seemed to share the same struggle—the careful calibration of content, form, and performance. And certain local talents held their own against foreign competition.
Take, for example, a trio of musicals, one hailing from Poland, two more or less homegrown, barring an Edinburgh tryout last August for the TEAM’s Mission Drift. In the Solitude of the Cotton Fields is Polish director Radoslaw Rychcik's musical play based on a script by Bernard-Marie Koltès, a nihilistic French author too rarely revived. In this dark allegorical piece, staged at La MaMa, a Dealer (Wojciech Niemczyk) and a Client (Tomasz Nosinski) meet in a deserted place and undertake a violent and erotic pas de deux, backed by an electro-house quintet, the Natural Born Chillers, all garbed as Breton fishermen.
The script teems with poetic menace, and both actors move with an intensity as ferocious as it is precise. But Rychcik has them repeat the same gestures even as Koltès’s lines force them to repeat the same words, and all the songs (played at tooth-rattling volume) begin to blend together. As story and character stifle, these cotton fields come to resemble a mire, never more so than during an unnecessary video sequence.
Similar storytelling problems afflict Goodbar, Waterwell’s glam-rock musical at the Public, based on a cautionary tale about a schoolteacher’s murder. (The caution: Nice girls shouldn’t go picking up men in bars since they’ll be raped, killed, and raped some more.) As in Solitude, the songs—voiced by the compelling Hanna Cheek as the doomed Theresa and the caped Kevin Townley as the various men in her life—don’t do any of the narrative heavy-lifting, and the dancers are even less necessary. Here, any plotting is accomplished via video sequences, notable mostly for the cameos—Ira Glass as a naughty professor, Under the Radar’s artistic director Mark Russell looming over a drug party.
While no famous names enliven Mission Drift, it nevertheless succeeds in staging a staggeringly ambitious saga—400 years in the life of American capitalism. The script, by the TEAM and playwright Sarah Gancher, focuses on two couples: Dutch immigrants Catalina and Joris, parents to the first child birthed in New Amsterdam, and contemporary Nevadans Joan and Chris, a dismissed cocktail waitress and a displaced cowboy.
As these players cavort on a set of sand, Astroturf, and lawn furniture at the Connelly Theater, Heather Christian—a singer-songwriter with a throaty voice like an emphysemic angel—leads an astute musical commentary on the action. Director Rachel Chavkin could stand to cut 20 minutes from the second half and downplay various metaphors, but it’s the liveliest lesson on desire, destruction, and economics that you’ll see in many a year, far more boom than bust.
Neither can you fault Alexis. A Greek Tragedy for its aspirations. The Italian company Motus aims to describe the Greek financial crisis and subsequent unrest, which led to the shooting of Athens teenager Alexis Grigoropoulos, while also examining Motus's own artistic practice and its work on the ancient play Antigone, another piece about a young victim of social protest.
In La MaMa’s sprawling Ellen Stewart space, Daniela Nicolò’s script proves elliptical and fragmentary, sending the actors scrambling toward a new idea well before the last one has settled, giving each topic rather less consideration than it deserves. And yet these actors—the long-limbed, excitable Silvia Calderoni particularly—are so present, so athletic, so pliant, they make the work appear better integrated than it actually is.
Of course, some pieces can have too much structure, such as the Builders Association’s Sontag: Reborn at the Public and Hideki Noda's The Bee at the Japan Society. In Sontag: Reborn, Moe Angelos, a dynamic and clever performer, plays Susan Sontag as both a febrile teenager scribbling in her diary and as the graying lady of American letters, commenting on those same journals. That older Sontag appears only on a scrim, one of two that Angelos perches between, her words accompanied by images of Sontag’s writing and live video feed of her own hands and torso. At almost every moment, two or three separate projections compete with the live performer, reducing the piece’s spontaneity, creating a stasis that Angelos’s fervor and the energy of the prose struggle against.
Noda’s The Bee also fights against its own fixity. An absurdist comedy, co-written with Colin Teevan and somewhat in the style of Max Frisch or Eugene Ionesco, the play concerns Ido, a salaryman (played in button-down drag by Peter Brook regular Kathryn Hunter) who returns from work to find that a notorious criminal has invaded his house and made hostages of his wife and son. In retaliation, Ido enters the criminal’s house and does the same. The four actors are strong (Noda himself stars as the criminal’s gogo-dancer wife), but each moment feels too rehearsed, too canned, and the gender-switching undercuts the violence at the play’s core.
There’s violence, too, as well as rage, bewilderment, and despair, in the other show at the Japan Society, Chelfitsch Theater Company’s poignant and sly Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner, and the Farewell Speech, a triptych of short office-set plays by Toshiki Okada. But in these pieces, any strong emotion is buried so far beneath shrugging ambivalence as to seem almost undetectable. Here, four temporary employees and two full-timers at the same nameless company cover over their distress with futile babble. Yet their spastic gestures and the stark lighting design suggest the desperation lurking below their conversations about temperature settings and dish detergent.
Okada makes a virtue of diminishment, yet the same can’t be said for Robert Cucuzza’s Cattywampus at the Incubator Arts Project. This line-by-line adaptation of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie still concerns a racy dame (Jenny Greer) who falls for a social inferior (DJ Mendel). But Cucuzza has updated the script to contemporary backwoods America, a place with more fluid class structures, and it has made Julie a dissatisfied housewife rather than the earlier play’s putative virgin. Consequently, her dalliance with a detailer at her husband’s failed car lot lacks tragic consequences, forcing the ardent actors to strain for emotive effect.
Greater stakes are evident in Lick But Don’t Swallow!, a play by Turkish company Biriken at La MaMa. An angel (Ayça Damgaci), who longs to keep her heavenly status, must descent to earth for 24 hours and in that time convince at least one person to turn toward righteousness. Things are made more difficult when she discovers her terrestrial identity—a porn star famous for her inventive postures. It’s a fine concept, but the play falters in the execution. Repetitive scenes occur in which Damgaci fakes copulation while chattering on about the plight of Africans.
If Lick’s porn star mourns the fate of a continent, Chimera—a wily gloss on the solo show by Philadelphians Suli Holum and Deborah Stein at Here—concerns itself with only a single woman. Or is that two women? While a mythological chimera is a beast with a goat’s head, a lion’s torso, and a snake’s tale (what a thing that would be to see onstage!), Jennifer Samuels (Holum) is a medical chimera, a scientist who discovers that she possesses two distinct sets of DNA, her own and that of the twin she absorbed during gestation and who has colonized several of her organs, including her ovaries. Chimera is focused, precise, and clean—white costumes, white set. It is also expertly assembled and performed, a show with very good DNA. Indeed, it offers audiences the satisfaction of seeing plot, structure, and performance twine together—a triple helix as beautiful as anything.
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