Pooting in the Shadows


In many respects, it’s an encouraging sign that the Brooklyn Academy of Music has programmed a month of new work by Australian artists for this year’s Next Wave. “Next Wave Down Under,” though the phrase sounds like a surfing competition, guarantees something more substantial—a look at theater artists unfamiliar to New York audiences. That the plain fact of Australia’s remoteness plays a large part in the festival’s freshness can be easily overlooked. With the Next Wave’s reputation for putting the same cash cows out to graze year after year, even a high-concept marketing ploy is more exciting than BAM’s annual unfulfilled promise of edginess. It must also brighten many an artist’s mood to consider that any 30-day presentation of artists from an exotic time zone suggests that great gobs of funding are falling off someone’s truck in order to cover all that airfare, cargo, lodging, and per diem. If the prospect of e‘s pronounced like i‘s and in-jokes about wombats feels threatening, rest assured. The Pina and Bob Show returns in November.

Ironically, a focus on Australia brings us closer, geographically at least, to some of the traditions that have influenced artists like Bob and especially Phil, including Balinese gamelan, which figures heavily in The Theft of Sita, a shadow puppet presentation written and directed by Nigel Jamieson, with music by Paul Grabowsky.

Sita is visually stunning and sensuous. Indonesian puppet director I Made Sidia, designer Julian Crouch, and lighting designer Damien Cooper have constructed a seemingly endless menagerie of intricate shadow puppets that give an extraordinary vitality to the forest in which the story takes place.

The play itself is shakier. Loosely based on the ancient Sanskrit saga the Ramayana, The Theft of Sita‘s plot tiptoes around the original story, in which the god Vishnu’s wife Sita is kidnapped by the demon Rawanna and, naturally, must be returned to him. The sidestepping of the text’s main thrust is accomplished with a couple of rather stale tricks. First, the story is retold from the perspective of an incidental player. In this case, Twalen and Merdah, two commedia dell’arte-type characters familiar to shadow-puppet theater (but not the urtext), provide a fragmented version of the narrative while armed only with fart jokes. (But not quite enough of them to transcend cuteness. Think of the controversy a Ramayana composed entirely of flatulence humor might cause.) Second, the collaborators transpose the action to modern-day Indonesia, which does little more than gratuitously inflate the piece’s cred with the incorporation of journalistic video images of Indonesia’s recent turmoil. One senses a kind of panic at The Theft of Sita‘s core, its creators desperate to legitimize the pleasure of pooting puppets via a sacred text and a garbled lesson in politics.

This anxiety extends somewhat beyond the frame of the work. While Sita‘s video-matte paintings and contemporary bent distinguish it from a more traditional shadow-theater piece, it emits the unfortunate odor of cultural appropriation, as the white guys who get the lion’s share of the credit don’t really provide a significant enough reinterpretation or even creative misinterpretation of the form. Grabowsky’s free jazz-gamelan fusion, aside from being doubly exploitative, is particularly unwelcome, as the ear doesn’t take to the constant improvisatory ringing of instruments tuned in quarter-tones. It’s hard to curb the nagging urge to go to Indonesia and see the real McCoy for yourself. Which, for all anyone knows, is what he and Jamieson want you to do.

The late cartoonist Shel Silverstein had a bug up his ass about women, a fear comparable to that of his contemporary R. Crumb. Most famous for children’s books like The Giving Tree, he also wrote hit songs and drew Playboy cartoons. His range was so wide that the more “adult” (though not “mature”) contributions to his oeuvre have been overlooked. Until now, that is, with the Atlantic Theater’s production of An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein, composed of 10 short pieces evidently written between the early ’70s and his death in 1999. A fair number of these are dated, repetitive sketches unworthy of Laugh-In, a fact that’s either being revered or mocked by Walt Spangler’s set, a vivid crossbreed of variety-show studio and enormous gelatin dessert.

Many of Silverstein’s vignettes feature a man being cruel to a woman under the cloak of humor. In “One Tennis Shoe” a husband accuses his wife of turning into a “bag lady”; in “Going Once” a man auctions off his wife. Fortunately there are some guiltless laughs. “Wash and Dry” brings a sharp undercurrent of surveillance paranoia to a wonderfully absurd encounter in a laundromat, and “Thinking Up a New Name for the Act” is a tragic tale whose entire text consists of the phrase “meat and potatoes”—funny mostly for how long it beats the joke’s dead horse, but painful for how hard its poor schmactors have to work to give it life. “Bus Stop” offers contrast: After a frat boy accosts a stranger with a litany of synonyms for her breasts, she counters with an even longer, angrier, funnier penis slang list. We can only hope this is a postmodern adaptation of the Ramayana.