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Heiner Müller and the Buddha

There aren’t many plays where the audience is asked to both hokey-pokey and meditate in the same two hours. But playwright and performer Daniel Levy has no problem coercing his crowd to put their right foot in (and shake it all about), then exhale and “dissolve.”

His solo show, Confessions of a Reluctant Buddhist, one of two pieces kick-starting Here’s Culturemart 2002 festival, walked the audience through the surreal Buddhist rituals he endured during a meditation retreat in Vermont. With the incredulousness of a guy more used to playing “Disco Inferno” in crappy lounges, he describes the retreat’s grueling meditation schedule and its infuriatingly precise method of eating lunch, called “Oreoke.” With a taped voice-over guiding him through the meticulous folding of endless napkins and the careful positioning of small bowls using only his thumbs, the novice Levy struggles to keep up with the instructions of his Oreoke Master.

The two-hour piece, directed by Eleanor Holdridge, acerbically touched on stereotypes and taboos, like white guys assuming other cultures and self-imposed abstinence from sex. Levy played several of his own compositions on acoustic guitar, and while they nicely buttressed some of his themes, they’re mostly tacked onto the end of the piece. The play began to drag by then, which is a shame, because for the first hour Levy gets so much so right.

If Levy’s production was a low-tech, mixed-media affair, Ivan Talijancic’s interpretation of Heiner Müller’s Quartet was quite the opposite. Stark visual and musical effects set off the actors playing Valmont and Merteuil (Dion Doulis and Erika Latta), the performers encased in a screen-covered box that gave them a ghostly appearance. Müller’s dialogue was mostly missing from this work in progress, each act punctuated by only a few excerpts.

Though productions of Quartet often invoke specific historic periods (like the French Revolution), Talijancic sets the play in a grim, apocalyptic techno future. Unsettling electronic music accompanies the actors in a death dance that is, by turns, violent, carnal, and tender. Talijancic’s casting of androgynous actors, dressed exactly the same (head-to-toe in white, like insane-asylum residents), alludes to Müller’s gender-bending. (There is only one silly section, when Missy Elliott’s hip-hop jangle “Get Your Freak On” booms over the sound system during a seductive moment.) It’s hard to say how dialogue will affect the finished production—as it is now, the piece is exquisitely eerie, but imperfect.

The two productions give an indication of the variety offered during Culturemart, which features work by members of Here’s Artist Residency Program. The festival, which runs through January 13, also includes meditations on the Internet boom-and-bust (Desk), Queen Margaret (Margaret), Devo (Suite Devo), and commercial radio (Radio Wonderland)—all of which combine various media and artistic methods in what Here’s directors dub “hybrid performance.” —Tricia Romano

Target Pop-Cult

As the noted cultural critic David St. Hubbins might have said, there’s a fine line between stupid and silly. The sketch-comedy troupe Wise Guise spend plenty of time on both sides of that narrow divide, as their barely-a-pun moniker implies.

The funniest moment in the company’s new revue, The Craig, Scott, Juan & Dan Show (TNC), comes near the end of the penultimate skit, a Behind the Music send-up. As a member of a fictitious band repeatedly shouts “Yada yada yada” at an offstage character, the audience seems to have entered some new circle of hell, where entertainers, like watercooler comedians everywhere, do little more than repeat Seinfeld catch phrases. Suddenly, though, another cast member blurts “That’s it! The Clichés!” With that, the foursome breaks into a doo-wop number composed entirely of hoary nuggets of popular wryness like “Life’s a bitch and then you die.”

Unfortunately, two acts is a long way to go for a decent punchline. Before this, the foursome—Craig Meade, T. Scott Lilly, Juan Villegas, and Daniel Wilkes Kelley—manage a few smirk-worthy gags, but most of them rely on visual humor, not verbal barbs. That’s because the Guise aim their satire almost exclusively at lower-middle-brow pop culture like VH1, infomercials, and network television. This material is so self-evidently vapid there’s little conceivable payoff in commenting on it. One typically stale skit points out that the situations in TV reality shows are—get this—unrealistic.

Far more effective are three quick spoofs of Old Navy ads interspersed throughout the show—not because there’s any merit in mocking the real spots, but because they’re an excuse for Kelley and Meade to strut around goofily in hunting coats and boxers. Similarly, a send-up of ads for prescription drugs becomes amusing (in a potty-humor way) when Kelley pantomimes symptoms of every side effect in the book, from headaches to “oily anal leakage.”

Unfortunately, the Guise never stick to broad slapstick for long, and we’re forced to endure overearnest material like the wrestling bit in which ethnically stereotyped grapplers battle each other to a heavy-handed finale. Even worse is the show’s one non-comedy interlude, a first-act song in which Lilly sings, “What is good for IBM/What is good for G.E./Is bad for the long term.” Long term or short, what’s good for these comics is to leave the heavy stuff at home and stick to the silly. —Ethan Smith

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