The Devils Made Me Do It
A noose dangles, a pistol gleams. In the smoky darkness, grotesque, rubbery human heads weave and sneer. As they spit accusations of an informer among them, these puppet revolutionaries in Possessed (Here)—held aloft by the human cast—capture the simmering anarchy of Russia in the 1860s.
It’s the central episode of Dostoyevsky’s 1870 novel, based on a real-life assassination of a member of a revolutionary cell. Adapter-director Kristin Marting and co-adapter Robert Lyons pursue the unwieldy novel’s plots and subplots as they fan out from Stavrogin, the aristocrat who dabbles in revolution and women, leaving a trail of broken hearts and corpses. The adapters have compressed the intrigues of a legion into a mere 80 minutes, with a cast of six and a host of puppets. The resulting dense tangle would challenge even an audience intimate with the story—and most are not likely to be.
That said, the production looks and sounds great. David Morris’s skeletal town, hung with a multitude of windows and shutters, hovers frighteningly under Christien Methot’s eerie lighting—whether a single candle, a red or blue glare. Kevin Augustine’s puppets add a touch of savagery. Matthew Pierce’s score of classical strings and throbbing drums heightens the welter of emotions suggested by Marting’s signature “gestural” choreography. Whether the nimble cast march in line or fling themselves down like pickup sticks, they make arresting pictures—if only you could make some sense of the dizzying sequence of events.
Still, the able actors manage to pluck some provocative characters from the blur of action—especially Richard Toth as Stavrogin and Mariana Newhard as Maria. They make you wish you understood more of their story. Guess you have to read the book. —Francine Russo
Dying of Consumption
“How do you know if stuff is garbage?” asks Frankie in Big Art Group’s Shelf Life, a new play by Caden Manson and Jemma Nelson (the Kraine Theater). Frankie, a bubbleheaded blond played by Vivian Bang, discovers the familiar truth that one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure, in this somewhat simplistic meditation on consumer culture.
New to town, Frankie befriends three people, Wendy (Rebecca Sumner Burgos), James (Tommy Lonardo), and Max (Jeffrey Rose). Each of them tries to superimpose their own media-manipulated view of the world on the beguiling newcomer. Entranced by Frankie’s beauty and charm, these competing characters become obsessed with possessing Frankie in the same way Frankie is obsessed with collecting possessions. Her appetite for “stuff” is insatiable: When she meets James at his clothing store, she deftly stuffs her giant pink bag with the entire rack. “What do you really want out of life?” James asks her. Frankie’s so committed to consuming, she never finishes her eternal list.
The acting—delivered in the deadpan style of a ’50s sitcom—perfectly complements the plastic content, and Manson’s inventive staging adds depth to an otherwise one-dimensional treatise. Though there are only three characters, six actors fill the stage, much of which is obscured by a long, narrow screen divided into three sections. With a video camera behind each section, the actors stand far apart, but the action is shown on the screens like a movie, giving the impression that the characters are right next to each other. When Frankie hands Max a Coke, another actor, who may not be the same race or gender, serves as a stand-in, so that the screen shows a fluid motion, but with a different body part. Though the effect is clever and jarring, its purpose is unclear. While all the visual trickery is a treat, the play often seems just as disposable as the stuff in Frankie’s surreal world. —Tricia Romano
The Mee Generation
Pentheus, a prince of a guy, values “elegance, precision, exactitude, and discipline.” From his natty suit to his close-cropped coif to his clipped voice, he’s the poster boy for the moral majority and masculine authority. So when the repressed returns to town—in the figure of the ass-baring, dress-wearing demigod Dionysus—Pentheus gets good and put out.
In the Rude Mechanicals’ production of Charles L. Mee Jr.’s Bacchae 2.1 (Flea Theater), director Kenn Watt takes this culture/nature, restraint/abandon binary and runs with it. Watt, in fact, runs so far and fast that he elides or ignores much of the complexity of Mee’s text. Mee, reformatting Euripides, writes like a bricoleur, stirring a mélange of sources, voices, texts, and arguments into his script. Watt directs with confidence (cockiness, perhaps?), but his reductive race to the finish oversimplifies the central debate. It also neglects other concerns of Mee’s script (art, decency, the intersection of sex and violence).
If Watt neglects content, he certainly pays attention to form—at least the female form. The five bacchantes who compose the chorus slink about the stage in flirty costumes or states of relative undress. In a play concerned with the vicissitudes of female sexuality, particularly as it differs from male sexuality, it is troubling that most of the outfits, dance numbers, and feigned sex acts are designed with the male gaze firmly in place. (And why does the women’s supposed drunken frenzy read more like vodka-tonic tipsy?) The actors, for the most part, serve the text well. Especially fine are Jonathan Tindle’s smug Pentheus and Cam Kornman’s eldritch Agave. Ultimately, Mee’s formal and thematic programs appear successful, but they deserve installment in a better system. —Alexis Soloski
Kitchen Think Drama
When Henry Darger—a janitor, twine collector, and probable schizophrenic—died in 1973, his landlord made an odd discovery. Darger’s one-and-a-half-room apartment yielded mountains of junk, an epic weather journal, an eight-volume autobiography, and over 15,000 pages detailing “The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal of the Glandico-Angelinian Wars, as Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.” Hundreds of illustrations accompanied the text, bearing titles such as “At Jennie Richee, Violet and Her Sisteres Are Captured & Denuded” or “At Jennie Richee, Frustrate the Enemy Twice.”
In Jennie Richee (the Kitchen), a music-theater piece collaged from Darger’s life and art, the Vivian sisters somehow escape capture and denuding, but frustration is the order of the day. An excruciatingly beautiful piece, Jennie Richee remains ultimately inexplicable—dramatizing Darger in a manner both reductive and abstruse. Mac Wellman’s text alternates scenes of Darger’s life with episodes from his novel, positioning the latter work as heavily fictionalized autobiography. Yet Wellman writes both types of scene in an oblique fashion—highly poetic, but devoid of plot. Director Bob McGrath renders the text even less accessible, setting nearly all of the action behind a scrim. The gravel-voiced Daniel Zippi portrays Darger with insight and compassion, projecting both gentle naïveté and latent menace. The actresses playing the pinafore-sporting, gun-toting Vivians evince spunk and ardor. Exquisite costumes, lights, projections, and particularly the films by Bill Morrison lend the piece a visual coherence, but cannot replace narrative or import. Much the same may be said of Julia Wolfe’s fanciful, textured music and Cynthia Hopkins’s haunting songs.
Darger titled one of his larger canvases “Vivian Girls Are Bewildered.” In Jennie Richee, they are not alone.—Alexis Soloski
Francine Russo’s review of Kristin Marting’s The Women of Orleans.
Charles McNulty’s review of Mac Wellman’s Cat’s Paw.
Alexis Soloski’s review of Wellman’s Hypatia.
Alexis Soloski’s review of Wellman’s Infrared.
Charles McNulty’s review of Wellman’s The Lesser Magoo.
Michael Feingold’s review of Wellman’s Girl Gone.