Space is perhaps the second most sought-after resource in Manhattan, right behind undivided attention. In Brooklyn, though, this is less the case, especially in DUMBO, where Anika Tromholt Kristensen and Cynthia Hopkins have commandeered Smack Mellon Studios’ fragrant gallery, a former spice factory, for a dreamy performance piece called Toast of Tears. Lightly basing their original text on a Flaubert story, “The Legend of St. Julian Hospitator,” the Danish choreographer and the New York actress-singer combine stylized movement technique and music, riffing on the oedipal tale of a natural-born hunter warned he’ll soon commit parricide. Only two human performers are ever onstage, flanked by four slender rows of audience, leaving room for a notable third presence—heaps of glorious real estate!
There’s enough room at Smack Mellon to inspire an outbreak of space-lust, a condition where people’s eyes glaze over and they start asking forward questions about rental charges. Encompassing a couple thousand square feet of concrete floor, the stage area is covered with a massive multicolored cloth, connected to a scheme of yellow ropes that ascend to a wooden catwalk about 50 feet up. Designers Tom Fruin and Jeff Sugg are no strangers to space-lust, both having designed for Gale Gates et al., whose converted-warehouse performances could almost be described as room pornography. On Toast‘s slimmer budget, the designers have produced a number of gorgeous effects, inventively underscoring their abundant asset, including a rotating klieg, a Chinese lantern, and the evening’s impressive payoff—the ropes raising the cloth into the shape of a house.
The play glosses the Flaubert, distilling it to the title character and his mother, jettisoning the narrative and emphasizing psychological underpinnings that might be best left more subtle—a Heiner Müllerization that creates an unsatisfying distance from the text that inspired it. Fortunately, the theatery part is broken up by several of Hopkins’s original songs. Kristensen, an odd performer of the Anna Köhler school, has several charming moments, including a monologue delivered while lying on her back in a chair. Obie laureate Hopkins, as the hunter, captures a masculine essence despite a fake mustache. Her haunting, Suzanne Vega-ish voice would steal any show.
Robert Lepage’s pretentiously lower-cased one-man piece, the far side of the moon, tackles larger types of spaces—outer space and estrangement—in a smaller room, the Newman at the Public. The show, part of the Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater, has inconsequential puppetry, leaving Lepage open to the suggestion that he is his own puppet. You can hardly imagine more fertile ground than the Void for Lepage to indulge his obsessions with sexy technology and that special Canadian brand of ennui a steady stream of snow days can inspire (see Egoyan, Atom). But like the universe, the play’s vague elements slowly drift apart, until they bear only a vague relation to one another.
The concept is brilliant. Lepage sets out to juxtapose events of the superpowers’ space race with the story of two brothers, André and Philippe, respectively a successful meteorologist and a nebbishy grad student defending a dissertation on Russian rocket scientist Tsiolkovsky. (Tsiolkovsky’s fascinating career is hinted at in a lecture given by Philippe—it sounds worth its own show.) Their mother recently dead from kidney failure, the brothers are cleaning out her apartment and dividing up her possessions. Between a series of slices from their lives, meticulously staged and darkly lit, images from the Russian space program appear, as well as astronaut puppets in brief nonnarrative vignettes designed as much to leave time for stage management as for entertainment. Occasionally they illuminate the maternal subtext in visually poetic ways, for example when Lepage, in drag as the mother, pulls a cosmonaut on an umbilical chord out of a portal we’ve seen used as a washing machine, a fishbowl, and the moon.
Lepage turns in a delightful, understated performance as the brothers, assisted by his Inspector Clousseau stage presence, and he gets more mileage out of his props—especially an ironing board—than anyone since vaudeville. The characters, too, are well drawn, and the writing crisp. Lepage is even able to freshen the device of a person-in-despair making a video documentary of his life, so overused in the ’90s (see Rent, Reality Bites, others). But elsewhere, in his quest to create a theatrical equivalent of cinematic language, the director takes on film’s worst quality, its fetishization of the banal. The scenes between the brothers are dramatically static and occasionally dull, partially because they can’t ever confront each other (though Lepage would seem capable of solving this problem theatrically). They needn’t fight over money, since Mom had none, Dad’s gone too, and Philippe’s too much of a loser to compete with his brother. Instead, there’s an amusing but safe altercation over a dead goldfish, late in the intermissionless two hours. The puppetry and films lose relevance, and the geopolitical comparison disintegrates because the brothers’ relationship doesn’t mirror Cold War, space-race paranoia at all, just the low-grade discontent of détente.