Upstarts and Upskirts
Hard as it may be to believe, the majority of new directors in the Blueprint Series have little in common with their host, Richard Foreman. Of course, these featured budding auteurs tend to work in an experimental fashion, but this is nearly as manifold a description as "conventional." This year's event, curated by Owen Hughes and Judson Kniffen, adds another layer of diversity, presenting two groups of neophytes alongside a more seasoned collaboration. Never in the Blueprint Series has the gulf between innocence and experience seemed this wide. While invidious comparison seems pointless, the lineup raises questions about the festival's basic objectives.
Director Jyana S. Gregory tackles Peter Handke's Kaspar, a play stubbornly resistant (à la Beckett) to conceptual horseplay. The author's inspiration comes from the real-life story of Kaspar Hauser, a seemingly autistic teenager who was picked up off the streets of Nuremberg in 1828 and whose tragic tale set off a maelstrom of literary curiosity. According to the majority of accounts, the boy's abusive parents willfully stunted his verbal development, leaving him in possession of a single sentence. Burning away the fascinating historical context, Handke transforms his character study into a purely theatrical meditation on the nature of language and socialization. His Kaspar is less a surrogate for the actual boy than a kind of frenzied tabula rasa whose most communicative aspect is his face mask of fearful astonishment. Handke's suggested alternative title, Speech Torture, gives a fairly accurate account of the way in which Kaspar is violently educated by an unseen trio of prompters, who are determined to turn the wild boy into a culturally "normal" human being.
Gregory plays fast and loose with the text, neither respecting its precision nor establishing her own. The problem isn't that she makes the prompters visible or hacks away mercilessly at the action, but that she misses the tone of the piece entirely. For one, her central actor seems too imprinted with modern mannerisms and affect to pass for presocialized. For another, her choreography, jaunty as it is with its momentary homage to Riverdance, bounces across styles and moods in a way that seems only tangentially related to the protagonist's journey. Though there are fascinating directorial brush strokes, a distinctive picture (be it Handke's or Gregory's own) never comes into focus.
There's something willfully madcap about Cold Pole, or Boxed Compass in the Yellow Sea, a group composition created by Ryan Brown, Franklin Laviola, and Brian Walsh. The title alone suggests too many cooks in the kitchen. Though it would be unfair to unduly criticize the company's "first original production," let's just say that the colorfully hectic staging (featuring a kiddie pool, an area rug, and a red wagon filled with toys) promises more than the ensuing parade of daft non sequiturs delivers. A dizzying array of pleasure-ship characters dressed in their nautical best spins in and out of the spotlight. Love seems to be the central pursuit, but then one of the characters bafflingly transforms into a bosomy unicorn. Clearly, rational sense isn't a value here, but even a dream must possess some degree of internal order.
A dress rehearsal of Juliana Francis's The Baddest Natasha, directed by Tony Torn, offered a sneak preview of a fascinating new play still under construction. Of course one of the glaring advantages enjoyed by Torn is the shared experience of his actors, who've orbited together in the same Reza Abdoh-Richard Foreman universe. Everyone, in other words, fluently employs the same theatrically heightened idiomone of the primary ways Francis's seriously zany feminist collage derives its coherence.
The kaleidoscopic action revolves around two Victorian-era "boxing prostitutes," a couple of Russian immigrants hunting for American husbands on the Internet, an actress plunged into a nervous breakdown, and a mysterious French redhead apparently inspired by Artaud. Darkly satiric sketches give way to borderline psychotic ramblings, with occasional video cameos featuring an old madam and the aptly named Mr. Upskirts streamed in for additional sleaze.
Sure, it's mildly strange that a festival for new directors is offering established Downtown artists a workshop, particularly given the way the other two events define "new" as postundergraduate. The middle ground for emerging talent may be lost, but it seems silly to complain about anything dedicated to the nurturing of Torn and Francis's collaborative quirkiness.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in New York.