The streamers, the stars, the stripes, the red, white, and blue drapes—the set for John Fleck’s Mud in Your Eye (P.S. 122) just screams Independence Day. Except that it’s early May and Fleck isn’t declaring his independence from anything. Mud, rather, trains its eye on Fleck’s dependencies—alcohol, Hollywood, performance art. Fleck is a needy, needy man, and as he’s also an absurdly dynamic and engaged performer, it’s a pleasure to serve as enabler.
Fleck performs with a smile on his face, a cocktail in his hand, and a sassy set of American flag skivvies beneath his slacks. He relates his reliance on the Hollywood machine, taking bit parts in TV shows and network movies to keep solvent. He may hold L.A. in some contempt, but he’s internalized its rituals and culture. He even structures Mud as a film shoot with an omnipresent three-person camera crew as collective straight man (perhaps the only straight aspect of the show). But if Fleck is whoring himself for Hollywood cash, he’s implicating the audience too. Throughout the show he offers money or drinks to spectators willing to assist in his endeavors. (Your reviewer enjoyed a turn as a Led Zeppelin-accompanied go-go dancer.)
It’s been over a decade since the NEA “defunded” Fleck and three other performance artists on the grounds of indecency, and almost three years since the Supreme Court upheld that decision. Fleck’s material may not itself dazzle—the childhood anecdotes are affecting, but the Hollywood love-hate is familiar, and the political jibes are standard-issue Bush-beating—yet Fleck’s infectious energy and virtuosic performance still mark that defunding as the true indecency. —Alexis Soloski
Since this is a time when it’s not only acceptable but encouraged to regard classic texts as mere blueprints for productions, it’s not surprising that Ellen Stewart has turned Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes (La MaMa E.T.C.) into a dance-opera sung in ancient Greek. What also isn’t surprising is that she’s made an elegant pageant out of the get-even play. Stewart and a sizable cadre have turned the 469 B.C. piece into a ritual that proves the Great Jones Repertory Company can rival Disney for spectacle.
Seven Against Thebes picks up where Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex ends. The king has died and his sons, Polyneices and Eteoclus, fight for command of the kingdom. When the latter is selected—in this version a giant papier-mâché hand manipulated by two players does the designating—the former hoofs it to Argos, marries the monarch’s daughter, and convinces his new father-in-law to declare war on Thebes. That’s a cue for the hand-to-hand combat the title promises. The outcome: Thebes 7, Argos 1. Among the dead are Polyneices and Eteoclus, and when Antigone attempts to bury Polyneices, Creon entombs her. But that, of course, is another play.
Stewart uses her two-story-high Annex space to make the proceedings larger-than-life and twice as noisy. By striking a kind of awe in today’s audiences, she wants to suggest how early theatergoers might have been previously awestruck. Among the special effects achieved with masks, machinery, and actors going through stylized motions are Iocaste’s self-strangulation, Oedipus’s blinding of himself, a city-destroying fire, a flying horse, and fights incorporating, among other things, bolos and a nine-foot-high wheel. Jun Maeda designed the set, David Adams the lighting, and Selcuk Gurisik the costumes. (The Argos crowd are clearly the underdogs because they wear silver, whereas the Thebans wreak havoc in gold.)
The bountiful and beautiful music was written by Elizabeth Swados, Michael Sirotta, and Genji Ito. It’s always tricky guessing individual contributions in a collaborative enterprise, but it’s a fair bet that Ito, who joined La MaMa in 1984 and who died recently, provided much of the score’s percussive yet delicate strength. He has taken himself off stage with panache. —David Finkle
In Nigerian writer Tess Onwueme’s The Missing Face (Henry Street Settlement), spirited words of community are lost in a whiplash ride of feeling. Ida Bee (Stephanie Berry), a single mom from Milwaukee, journeys with grown son in tow back to her ancestral home in Benin. She comes with a double agenda: to restore the missing half of her dead father’s ikenga, or familial mask, and to find her long-lost baby’s-daddy, who supposedly ran back to the same place. Right when she’s finished giving us the rundown, a drum circle of villagers happens by to perform a rite-of-passage ceremony. Conveniently, the party includes her child’s father, Momah, although he’s none too honest about admitting the fact.
Even though his own parents adore Ida, Momah isn’t ready to face life with her and their son. He runs off into the forest, where he encounters the spirit of Ida’s father, who tells him to accept his responsibilities. He does, but Ida still has to find that piece of the mask. Momah miraculously brings out the missing half, which one supposes just happened to be lying around.
Subtle allusions to African lore enrich this fable, and the cast is good enough (Angeline Butler is especially winning as Momah’s mother), but director Patricia White sets such a harried pace that the plot seems contrived. In the first five minutes, poor Ida jumps around smelling reeds and flowers, then shrilly unloads her story before Momah and kin bark at her. There’s not a dull moment , and that’s a bad thing. The cast maintains such a fever pitch that you feel as if you’ve been walking around in the forest with everyone onstage. There are some lovely moments, but these seem to come only when the cast mellows out and lets the audience hear Onwueme’s charming maxims. By the time the carousel of emotions comes to a halt, you’re left feeling satisfied but dizzy. —José Germosén