Hello, Dolly—Now Die!
As a torture slide-show flickers on the back wall, an offstage Hamlet declaims in Spanish. Downstage, a quartet of actors throws mannequins to the ground and thrashes them. Then they pluck a “spectator”—also a mannequin—from the audience. One performer blows its brains out, the others toss darts into its back. Blood trickles from rips in its suit. Something was rotten in Denmark, but Elsinore was never like this.
In Máquina Hamlet (Hamletmachine), Argentina’s El Periférico de Objetos extracts a coherent poetics of desiccation and violence from Heiner Müller’s famously fractured text. On the undecorated stage of the BAM Harvey, the actors play out a dystopic meditation on intellectualism, totalitarianism, and desire. But they do it indirectly, manipulating mannequins, baby dolls, shadow puppets, and headless Barbies. The performers remain visible behind the puppets, blank-faced and solemn, negating any mimetic potential or consistent illusion.
It’s the poor puppets, of course, who bear the marks of desiccation and suffer the violence—like a Chapman brothers exhibit brought horribly to life. The faces of the mannequins look half-decomposed, one doll lacks a skull, another is outrageously begrimed. The actors beat them, stomp them, dismember them, or encourage them to perform similar acts on one another—as when a male baby doll lifts the dress of a female one and rapes her with a sword. The play makes for harrowing, thrilling viewing. The guilty pleasure derived from the precision of the gruesome puppetry or the unnerving stage pictures only increases the discomfort. When the disembodied voice of Hamlet talks of “the daily nausea Nausea,” you couldn’t agree more. —Alexis Soloski
Genesis’s Greatest Hits
Sorry, but the Old Testament just doesn’t work in modern English. The visitations of angels, the thunder of God’s voice—these demand an evocative poetry. Understanding this, in Arca Nova NaCl Theatre has created a performance language to retell the tumultuous tales of Genesis. A kind of post-Babel, postmodern blend of dialogue and dance, music and gymnastics, this original vocabulary is utterly beguiling.
Over the cavernous open space of the Washington Square Church, the company of two men and eight women hoists a massive canvas drape that billows into the sails of Noah’s ark or rests as the overhanging firmament. In this demarcated realm, they enact the archetypal stories, from Adam and Eve’s fall to Jacob’s theft of his brother’s birthright.
The actors speak mostly English, but they sing sweet harmonies in often incomprehensible syllables, in styles from madrigal to chant to African rhythms. The ensemble, who created the piece with director Brad Krumholz, sometimes play instruments while they act or dance, blending harmonium and recorder with mandolin, drums, and other folk instruments. Their visual effects—like a dance of skeletal lacy parasols, veiled black and white brides swooping on stilts—mesmerize.
All these effects show the myths anew. Adam folds languorously over Eve from above, striking us with the meaning of the biblical “cleave.” Sarah quiets a crowd of malicious gossips against Hagar by raising her cello bow to conduct a peaceful melody that all of them play together. Isaac, bound with a rope of bells, sounds the jubilation of his release.
The action is sometimes confusing, and the framing device of Noah’s ark awkward, but the company conjures a magical world, where the primitive passions of a people play out under the sway of an all-powerful God. —Francine Russo
In calling his rambling drama Other People (Playwrights Horizons), Christopher Shinn refers to Jean-Paul Sartre’s definition of what Hell is—and refines it for today. Hell 2000 is other people who natter but don’t complete sentences, who are random about their decisions and actions.
The youngish folks suffering the figurative Hades flames live in gentrified Lower East Side quarters and have jobs ranging from trendy to trendier. Stephen writes movie reviews for an online magazine; Mark is a filmmaker recovering uncomfortably from drug addiction; stripper Petra is a would-be writer; Darren does screenplays; street kid Tan ostensibly survives by masturbating in public for $300 a pop; an unnamed character is an investment banker who squanders his millions on strippers willing to talk.
The six have inconclusive encounters during the 1997 Christmas season; they drift in and out of each other’s lives—and past set designer Kyle Chepulis’s apartment-fragment panels. Stephen tries to reclaim ex-lover Mark. Mark maneuvers for Tan’s heart, though denying he’s doing so—”I like to control what I expose myself to,” he insists twice. Petra reads Swann’s Way when not being ambivalent about her nameless spendthrift suitor. Darren wants Stephen for sex and turns hissy when it’s withheld. Tan, happy when naked, attempts to look as if he could give a shit.
The problem with the play and its clever but tiresomely authentic dialogue is that it’s not the characters who are arbitrary. Playwright Shinn is. What this familiarly unmoored bunch sort-of-say to each other is meant to be like life as we live it: leading nowhere. Only it’s Shinn who’s leading nowhere. Three cheers, however, for Kate Blumberg, Neal Huff, Austin Lysy, Victor Slezak, Pete Starrett, and Philip Tabor for getting their unfinished exclamations down with such . . . you know, like, hey. —David Finkle