A Downtown Twain


Taken together, Big Dance Theater’s Another Telepathic Thing and Split Britches’ Salad of the Bad Cafe represent an unusual opportunity to ponder how two shows using remarkably similar means can wind up with completely disparate ends. Both use dance, song, theater, and multiple source texts, yet the former is an elegant and haunting gem, while the latter’s charms are far more erratic, rough-edged, and less successful.

Another Telepathic Thing, directed by choreographer Annie-B Parson and her husband, actor Paul Lazar, and developed by the company and Scott Renderer, takes Mark Twain’s 1916 short story “The Mysterious Stranger” and intercuts it with choreography, songs, and text from actual film and television auditions. “The Mysterious Stranger” is a metaphysical fairy tale set in an Alpine village in 1590. The title refers to a charismatic youth who arrives unexpectedly and performs a series of wonders before a credulous group of locals, finally admitting that his name is Satan—”not that one,” he explains, but Beelzebub’s angelic yet amoral nephew. Mischief being second nature in the Satan family, the apparition sets about bedeviling a clergyman named Father Peter, in whose wallet he conjures a large sum of money. Father Peter’s nemesis, the local astrologer, accuses the priest of theft.

Big Dance Theater threads the major plot points of this yarn through Joanne Howard and Sky Lanigan’s highly stylized mise-en-scène, which consists of a few well-chosen and easily portable set pieces. These include a group of connected wooden planks made to read as a bridge, a harness, and a gate; an oversized revolving mirror; wooden umbrellas with concealed radio mics underneath; and a rolling desk with a miniature bonsai landscape on top, replete with Styrofoam snowflakes. BDT has relocated the story from Austrian high altitudes to a more vague Asian location—the frigid mountains of Hokkaido, perhaps. The motive for this alteration is not apparent, but the thoroughness and imagination with which they carry the idea through go a long way toward making the adjustment seem logical, even though the text hasn’t been altered to reflect the staging.

In between the bits of story, the actor-dancers break out of character into brief scenes lifted from the all-too-familiar ridiculous transactions that take place during auditions. Directors describe in outrageous, contradictory terms what they want from characters; actors are alternately flummoxed or have the clueless nerve to describe their lurid sexcapades. By fusing Twain’s story and the audition vérité scenes, BDT may be drawing a parallel between Father Peter’s unearned wealth and the familiar Faustian bargain made by actors hell-bent on commercial success. No matter how well these themes resonate with one another, the expert timing and craftsmanship with which this delightful show is constructed make the unstable connection of its philosophical points practically moot, as do the high number of winning performances, including Cynthia Hopkins’s eerie narration and wonderfullly droll original songs, and Lazar himself as Father Peter.

Obviously, the whole point of collage, whether it’s meant to hang on a wall or move around on a stage, is to create a new work out of odds and ends. But this new work must somehow stand on its own; one shouldn’t leave the piece convinced that its meaning could be elucidated by a closer reading of its source material. Either that, or the creators should keep their texts a secret in order to avoid letting audiences down. Split Britches’ Salad of the Bad Cafe is a quasi-vaudevillian headcheese jellying together Carson McCullers’s Ballad of the Sad Cafe and bits and pieces from the lives of McCullers intimate Tennessee Williams and Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima. Britches members Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver collaborate this time with Okinawan performance artist and poet Stacy Makishi in a series of tangents linked to a romance between Shaw’s returning soldier character and Makishi’s lovelorn Asian archetype.

The Britches’ approach is more casual than BDT’s, their dancing amusingly Stooge-like, and their fourth wall flimsier. They’re also more prone to include some of their own material, unfortunately with the conviction that incessant word-association constitutes witty dialogue. Shaw and Weaver’s incoherent attempts to satirize gender stereotypes, including an argument about who should wear the dress and a karaoke version of “Woman in Love,” are frequently upstaged by Makishi’s asinine antics. Her Elvis impersonation, like much of this messy montage, is to be missed.

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