The Ring Cycle

In writer-director Tory Vazquez’s last play, The Florida Project, her roadside-attraction heroes grappled with vicious gators. In her current show, Wrestling Ladies (P.S.122), the opponents have moved up the evolutionary scale, but do not lack for reptilian ferocity. The dance-theater piece takes place on a down-market fight circuit in which brawlers such as the Lizard and La Culebra (that’s Spanish for “the Snake”) tussle gracelessly.

Vazquez has a singular choreographic vocabulary, one of intentional awkwardness. As interpreted by her seven performers, the attitude of studied ineptness lends the proceedings a certain pathos. Professional wrestling may be fake, but the unselfconcious artifice of Wrestling Ladies amounts to a kind of truth. When one woman executes an eye gouge that ends six inches from her rival’s face, but the rival nevertheless recoils in pain, there’s theatricality to spare. But purposeful clumsiness only gets a Leopard Girl or Queen B. so far. Though the show boasts plucky performances, glittery masks, a Mexi-pop soundtrack, and a swell set (a chalkboard cum scoreboard, courtesy Jim Findlay), it feels incomplete. There are attempts at character, but only one or two wrestlers receive even a glimpse of a back story. Similarly, a melodramatic narrative arrives pointlessly late in the proceedings.

Vazquez has apparently derived some visual inspiration from the comics of Los Brothers Hernandez of Love and Rockets fame. Perhaps she should have derived some storytelling tips as well. Comics are excellent teachers of what to frame and what to leave between the panels. Better editing and clearer characterization would lend the pile drivers and airplane spins greater interest. In its current form, despite numerous pins and fancy moves, Wrestling Ladies doesn’t really have a hold on me. —Alexis Soloski

Fightin’ Words

Agitprop is protest disguised as art, creativity carrying a picket sign. The production of Canadian playwright Michel Garneau’s Warriors (The P.I.T.), directed by Nick Keene and translated by Linda Gaboriau, tries to lift an anti-war cartoon into the realm of avant-garde performance. The pointedly updated piece is essentially an editorial given a Richard Foreman treatment. While it’s certainly a relief to encounter theater with an awareness of our current historical powder keg, the work finds itself caught in an aesthetic no-man’s-land somewhere between serious critical analysis and formalist experiment.

The setup of the piece involves two guys brought together to revise the military’s new recruitment slogan. “Be all that you can be,” though ingenious in its cover-up of the army as a force of destruction, has apparently grown stale. While poring over books on the history of warfare and bingeing on stimulants ranging from caffeine to coke, the men attempt to create a catchy phrase that both sums up and conceals the truth of the new American jingoism. “Got War?” is rejected, even though it nicely captures Bush’s “All War, All the Time” policies. Eventually, “We’re in the Yellow Pages” wins the day—after a nine-day psychotic marathon, punctuated with fistfights, slobbering drunkenness, and multimedia high jinks that prefer direct satire over metaphoric mockery.

As the two advertising men, Michael McCartney and Tony Torn motor the drama with a stampeding energy that never flags. But, like war itself, the actors’ hyper-theatricality is a blunt instrument—a carpet-bombing rather than a nuanced assault. Kudos, though, to Keene and Gene Lewis’s media design for spinning the Pentagon worldview into a pop-cultural collage that’s as wry as it is ravaging. —Charles McNulty

Decor of the Matter

Meet Sparky Litman. Actually you’ve met him, or someone like him, countless times. The 40-ish narrator of Stanley Rutherford’s The Chinese Art of Placement (78th Street Theatre Lab) is the guy with the “kick me” sign taped on his back. He’s a loner, a loser, and at least a little strange.

T. Scott Cunningham plays this isolated oddball on a stage as empty as his character’s life—except for one red chair. Yearning to be “normal,” Sparky has seized on the art of feng shui as the fix to turn everything around. As he studies the chair, edges it over a millimeter in this direction, a fraction of an inch in that, he confides his plans to us. Last night, he abandoned his life as a “poet”; tomorrow night, he’s throwing a nice normal party with nice normal people—and music by Tina Turner, in person. Picking up the phone, he invites his guests—Turner, a girl who rejected him in seventh grade, a few folks he once knew, and several people who’ve never heard of him. He has to spell his name a lot, and the calls end abruptly.

Rutherford has an ear fine-tuned to cultural cliché. Sparky makes a perfect vehicle because, having so little direct experience of anything, he brings an outsider’s distillation of vapors from the environment. Receiver at his ear, he imitates a breezy tone he’s heard somewhere, as he talks up his bash: “one of those stand-up affairs with some nice wine and cheese-and-crackers and a casual but special kind of ambiance, a kind of see-and-be-seen sort of thing.”

Onstage alone for 80 minutes, Cunningham inhabits this tightly wound, rabbity denizen of the heartland with every gesture right—the stoop, the hesitancy, the fidgets. When he breaks into sudden rages about the ants in his house, the actor gives us the hissy fit of the utterly powerless. As directed by Jessica Bauman, his timing is unerring.

As Sparky relates scenes from his past, they escalate in pathetic, comic scale from the believable romantic humiliation during “the whole puberty-adolescent episode” to wild tales of his service as an intelligence operative. In one lengthy narrative, he describes being assigned, though speaking no Russian, to spy while riding the Siberian railway. With a computer chip sewed in his underpants, he tries to fend off the nefarious attentions of a red-lipsticked Russian agent straight out of a James Bond movie

This breathless sequence pairs a kind of Catch-22 worldview with an Inspector Clouseau haplessness that’s hilarious. Did Sparky imagine it all? Does he really believe Tina Turner will show up at his party? Doesn’t seem to matter. Teetering between poignancy and farce, ultimately—and disappointingly—Sparky’s psyche doesn’t seem real but a clever comic construct. —Francine Russo