Jérôme Bel’s 2001 The Show Must Go On comes to us trailing scandal: Spectators in Paris, where he is based, say rude things and walk out; critics flinch and pontificate. The opening-night audience at Dance Theater Workshop loved the performance. Go figure.
Bel’s carefully structured piece proclaims itself as non-dance dance. The 18 people he designates as “actors” (although most of them have been or are dancers) represent “ordinary” people. In New York, comparisons with Judson Dance Theater of the ’60s are inevitable, but that consortium of obstreperous intellects asked myriad art-historical and political questions, even in the most playful works. Bel’s offering is more deliberately warm, fuzzy, and theatrical than, say, Steve Paxton’s 1967 Satisfyin Lover, in which any old people walked across a room, tacitly inviting us to contemplate human difference and to wonder, “If you frame it as art, is it art?”
Pop music, used in ways both obvious and ironic—or so obvious they become ironic—guides Bel’s Show. When technical director Gilles Gentner, sitting in front of the first row, slips a CD into his sound equipment and the Beatles sing “Come Together,” the not-too-motley crew walks onstage and gives us the once-over. “I Like to Move It”? Each finds a way to comply—jiggling a breast, running a zipper up and down, stamping a foot. Lionel Richie sings “Ballerina Girl,” and the women dance (Carine Charaire offers a stunning arabesque, Hester van Hasselt a remarkable bourrée minus any hint of turnout).
You get the idea. The empty stage is suffused with pink light while Edith Piaf sings “La Vie en Rose.” Gentner periodically interrupts a cut of Paul Simon’s “Sound of Silence” so we can hear the silence. This is so dopey that it’s fun. I find myself smiling at the engaging performers while they stare at us (Sting gives the cue: “I’ll be watching you”). Over the course of the work they cut loose, sing out lines from the different faves they’re listening to on headphones, shake themselves into a witty Macarena, and support a partner leaning perilously out over the void (remember Celine Dion and Titanic?).
In this town, the question “But is it dance?” is no big deal anymore. We see this performer’s elegance, that one’s clumsiness, another’s sweet face or impudent swagger. Friendly people doing stuff to pop music. No big deal, but OK, why not?
Dan Froot’s hilarious Shlammer is billed as “a gangster vaudeville,” but this is no string of comic “acts” despite the shtick and the marvelous playhouse-size toy theater with its instructions to “insert tab B here.” Shlammer is a rich strudel layering issues of Jewish identity in America, male violence, and coming-of-age. Dan Hurlin, who designed the set, directed the show with an eye to vaudeville’s manic energy and pacing, and the three terrific musicians—Chip Epstein (violin), Andy Ford (euphonium), and Lenny DeLuxe (accordion)—keep the ball rolling with klezmer tunes and atmospheric effects, also popping out of the stage-within-a-stage to join the action.
The array of jokes and lightning shifts of character and tone are brilliant. Froot enters in a gray suit, the wire hanger still in the coat. Shoulders hiked up, jaw thrust out, this character snarls orders at us (one group is to snicker every time it hears the word autobiography). The coat hanger, now a gun, and the tough-guy stance disappear when “Froot” ‘s pregnant wife calls his cell phone (by the time the show ends, their kid is ready to be bar mitzvahed). We crack up at our hero-narrator’s earnest attempts to get in touch with his inner yiddishkeit via a manual for teaching actors Yiddish accents and a “learn Yiddish” tape that talks back.
After a “bang” fells him, Froot starts to relate a story—not his story, he’s quick to say. Facedown in his chalked outline, he tells of “Daddy” Feinman, a precocious kid shlammer, or professional Jewish thug. Daddy gets into showbiz when, in a theater, he beats to a pulp the man beside him who heckles Sophie Tucker during her song. The crowd adores the violence, and a star is born. Poverty-stricken volunteers line up to serve as his onstage victims. But while Froot-Daddy is performing maniacally charming numbers, vaudeville is dying out from under him, and he and the musicians join in a song-and-dance “we play bar mitzvahs.” Which segues into a bar-mitzvah-from-hell number with its ironic “Now you are a man” refrain.
The plot acquires a new layer of complexity when Froot hysterically renounces violence and venerable Daddy (Paul Zimet) marches down the aisle. Handing out American flags and bullying the musicians to take part in his patter song and kick line, he tells Froot, “Nobody likes a sad Jew” and “Here’s how a real man ends a show.” (Zimet’s mix of doddering, nimbleness, and ferocity is irresistible.) Over and over the two men shoot each other, a cycle Froot can’t escape. In the end, the last shot is fired by an alarming child Daddy (Joshua Marmer). This father to the man addresses us in fluent Yiddish (subtitles projected). We didn’t see any dead bodies, he informs us, we just went to a show. Brandishing a “gun,” he orders us to clap our hands and cheer. We obey.