Dragons, Dwarves Save Theater


Reasons to wolf down Radiohole’s Wurst (Take It and Eat It!) (I mean…take it and keep it.): Because it’s performed at a viable theater outside Manhattan. Because mainly twentysomethings compose the audience. Because said twentysomethings’ hipness does not prevent them digging into the bucket of free beer or sharing cigarettes or hooting and hollering and clapping. Because the play merits hollering and clapping. Because despite the pastiche, found texts, alienation effects, and multimedia, it’s a forthright retelling of the Nibelungenlied. Because the Nibelungenlied has sex, blood, and dwarves. Because one of the characters is named Kriemhild and that is such a porno name. Because one of the actors shaved an S into his chest hair to play Siegfried even though it means he can’t swim at the Metropolitan Pool until the run of the show is over. Because there are dance breaks. Because if poetry is supposed to aspire to the condition of music, Wurst aspires to the condition of punk rock. And succeeds.

As the audience curls up on the rickety wooden risers, arranging stadium cushions and attempting to ensure their feet aren’t on anyone’s ass, a pink-lit platform languorously lowers from the ceiling. It disgorges a glamorous young woman, garbed like a new-wave Valkyrie, with a lush beard and fur sprouting from her toes. Abruptly lights change, sound effects blare, and the Nibelungenlied‘s hero, Siegfried, is launched upon the world. Bounding through inserts from the Little Rascals, the Beatles, and the Home Shopping Network, Siegfried nevertheless manages to forge his sword, slay a dragon, seduce Brunhilde, aid his friend Guntar, and die a terrible death—all as decreed by fate.

The performers vary the tempo nicely and are never so at home in one genre (melodrama, epic, talk show) that they don’t throw it over for another. But Radiohole has also learned not to let the highbrow, lowbrow, and (considering all the facial hair) mono-brow found texts get in the way of the central narrative. This doesn’t mean they’ve cut out their trademark weirdness: One scene in Wurst features Eric Dyer—hooked up to real electrodes—cheerfully humping a fuzzy cushion while Scott Halvorsen Gillette—head encased in a fur-covered bag—screams and screams like a sissy girl. These performers are expert at projecting a perfect double-consciousness, existing in nearly every moment as fully both actor and character. Watching them in this scene, it’s clear that Dyer and Gillette know what ridiculous pursuits electrode humping and bag screaming are, but the characters pursue them with no less abandon.

As Siegfried’s funeral bier slowly rises and the swelling soundscape plays, actors Maggie Hoffman and Erin Douglass read questions from Scientology handbooks, questions both peculiar and affecting. “Have you seen someone being beaten?” they intone. “Have you seen someone injuring others? Have others ever hunted anybody?” It’s not too much, at this moment, to read Wurst as a complex meditation on sin, guilt, responsibility, and complicity. Or you could simply conclude, as one of the characters does, “It’s fucked up, but hey, it’s kind of cool.”

Wurst is by no means the smartest, prettiest, most trenchant, or truest show in town, but it’s likely the most fun and certainly the most exciting in terms of where theater might be headed. Dozens of companies have been influenced by the Wooster Group, Richard Foreman, and other stalwarts of the ’70s avant-garde, but Radiohole is at the forefront in having absorbed that influence (and being just generally under the influence) and preparing to move beyond it.

The great beyond is the subject of the Talking Band’s perfectly innocuous shout-out to Galileo, Kepler, Brahe, and other stargazing greats. But for a play so concerned with the interplanetary, Star Messengers never really gets off the ground. The piece, written by Paul Zimet and composed by Ellen Maddow, boasts fine production values, tuneful songs, interesting instrumentation, and some nice performances. Even the script, the weakest element, is by no means embarrassing. But where a company like Radiohole fully embraces a wealth of genres with equal enthusiasm, Zimet meanders diffidently—from history lesson, to Brechtian epic, to folk play, to low-tech song cycle—never seeming to find the desired form.

The play primarily concerns the relationship and parallels between Galileo Galilei (Will Badgett) and Johannes Kepler (David Greenspan). The two never met, but were frequent correspondents. Both made great astronomical discoveries (Galileo argued a heliocentric model, Kepler proved planets moved in ellipses) and both suffered greatly (Galileo recanted and went blind, Kepler suffered the death of children and saw his mom accused of witchcraft). Badgett is a welcome, boisterous presence, and Greenspan somehow renders Kepler’s whining endearing. But neither Zimet nor the actors captures the men in sharp enough focus. Like the movement of the Earth itself, the whole play whirls by prettily without you noticing anything has happened.

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