Francis E. Dec, Esq., the schizophrenic manifesto writer who acquired an underground following with his musical rants about the “Communist computer god,” is the paranoid subject of the Emerging Artist Series’s current installment (Performing Garage). Conceived by Eric Dyer, Scott Gillette, Maggie Hoffman, and Erin Douglass, A History of Heen (Not Frances E. Dec, Esq) amounts to an impressively executed, if often baffling, theatrical head trip that tunes its audience into the same frequency of Dec’s fraught, though undeniably rhythmic, brain waves.
The production begins with an apt invocation to the diseased and de formed. While spinning a set of slow-dance records, a young woman wear ing a mustache and a black tux intones a list of conditions ranging from morbid obesity to various unpronounceable (and apparently malodorous) dermatological nightmares. “Suffering,” she reminds her listeners, “is in the eye of the sufferer”—a perfect segue for our encounter with that robust martyr Dec, who, while preparing his hate-filled recordings, engages in tormented conversation with voices that will inevitably put him on trial. Found guilty of crimes he considers merely an extension of his inalienable right to freedom, the convicted ex-attorney and mentally ill white rap artist feels paradoxically vindicated: “the system” was out to get him after all.
Presented without much context, the stage narrative isn’t always easy to track. Words, spoken through microphones at rapid-fire speed, often get lost in the dense aural thicket. The casualty in all of this, of course, is the meaning of Dec’s story—and, more important, the reason for its current inspirational hold. A sonic dose of kook sensibility is effectively administered, but with only a murky sense of its possible higher significance. —Charles McNulty
The new Axis Theatre gleams. Start with the lobby—a stainless-steel surround bristling with television monitors and an electronic board flashing “Hospital,” “Episode 1.” Then you enter the dazzling 99-seat auditorium, where white-tiled columns set off a giant screen over a rounded platform stage topped by more video monitors. You hear a magnified pulse and la bored breathing, punctuated by the sinister beep of a hospital machine. Think Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart.” A young boy’s voice begins a narrative—the nightmare fire, lying in a coma dying, and imagining another self who grows up and lives the “what if” life. (Episode 1, only half an hour long, is the first of five alternate—and freestanding—visions the company will present.) A film accompanies the narrative—a mop-headed kid making a cheese sandwich with ketchup, then dreaming in school. Its ordinariness and unknowingness prompt a frisson. Then the actors come onstage—and talk. Bye-bye, chills.
First we see the bandaged “Traveller,” the boy’s adult alter ego, plaintively questioning his spacey, in-denial Mom about where school is. She responds like an automaton; this is sup posed to be poignant. Next, two doctors and two nurses, in front of scary footage of firemen battling a blaze, do a limp, scattered comedy routine, presumably unable to cope with the boy’s gruesome condition. Finally, there’s Stuart Little telling his story, but with sinister intimations of mortality. None of this is remotely scary or funny. Axis, who “conceived, wrote, and produced” Hospital, aim, they declare, “to outrage and rattle audiences.” If only. —Francine Russo
Livin’ La Vida Lavoe
When you go see Who Killed Héctor Lavoe? (47th Street Theatre), don’t expect a work of musical theater—the production is more of a first-rate nostalgia revue. In the title role of salsa singer Héctor Lavoe is Domingo Quiñones, an accomplished salsa vocalist who had the lead role in Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s an apt pedigree for an actor playing a man who tried to lead Nuyoricans to salsa salvation, only to become martyred on a cross of his own making. While not reaching the high registers of Lavoe’s inimitable tenor, Quiñones faithfully reproduces the singer’s trademark inflections and stunning lyrical improvisations. The blustery banter between Quiñones, Bruno Irizarry (as a music mogul), and fiery Fulvia Vergel (as Lavoe’s girlfriend) perfectly captures the funky flow of Nuyorican Spanglish circa 1977; it’s the highlight of the production’s narrative sequences. But the repartee exists merely to set up the musical numbers, where Quiñones jumps onto a revolving stage to join a swinging salsa band.
The sketchiness of Pablo Cabrera’s text feels like a missed opportunity—one would hope that Lavoe the man was a bit more complex than a drug-dizzied philanderer who spouts endless cuchifrito-circuit one-liners. The play does manage to convey the pain of Lavoe’s migration from Puerto Rico, and the loss of his son in a gun accident, but its most transfixing moments come when Quiñones belts out signature tunes like “El Cantante” and “Mi Gente.” Anyone hanging Latin in New York during the late ’70s and early ’80s knows that when Lavoe sang, a community would suddenly come together for a fierce moment—that’s the feeling this play captures best of all. —Ed Morales