In postmodern art and scholarship, disparate “texts” often combine—sometimes to produce enlightening new ideas, sometimes to mess with our heads. Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar of Big Dance Theater are two of my favorite mix masters. How, for instance, in their Plan B, 2004, did they come up with the idea of interweaving the subterfuges surrounding Richard Nixon’s Oval Office tapes with the diaries of the 19th-century “wild child,” Kaspar Hauser?
Their new The Other Here braids together two short stories by Masuji Ibuse, Okinawan traditional dance and pop music, and speeches drawn from a conference of life-insurance salesmen. These elements slip around one another as fluidly as a video image of the carp from one of Ibuse’s tales swims in a portable monitor. Takeshi Kata’s beautiful, spare set—magically lit by Jennifer Tipton— suggests a traditional Japanese house, with red bamboo blinds that operate on pulleys, translucent screens, and a twisted tree; but branches that signal the changing seasons—now budding, now red-leafed, etc.— decorate a microphone, and Claudia Stephens’s costumes mesh kimonos with contemporary attire.
Parson and Lazar mingle cultures with neither pomposity nor condescension and sympathize with human frailty. From the poignant, absurd, sharply funny goings-on among six characters, themes emerge: trust, deception, love, commitment. Medhi (Lazar) sells insurance in a Japanese village, focusing his efforts on a widow (Heather Christian), who’s carried onto the stage as if her feet were too precious to touch the ground. He’s also the recipient of a prize carp, given into his care by a neighbor (Chris Giarmo) who’s leaving town. Medhi frequently tangles with his longtime servant, mainly because Yosuji (Molly Hickock) seizes every opportunity to laze around smoking his pipe. Yosuji’s wife (Jennie Mary Tai Liu) arrives after a long trip to advise her husband to shape up and serve his master properly.
All of them, including Tymberly Canale, as the widow’s servant, join the emcee of the sale conference (Jess Barbagallo) in a bizarre session during which they sit on the edge of the stage and solicit questions. Audience “plants” present technical queries such as, “How do you make cold calls?” and receive answers like, “The truth of life lies in its impermanence.” That Barbagallo, a small woman with a shock of red hair dressed in a tight man’s suit, looks like a precocious 11-year-old boy makes her authoritarian manner all the more surreal. “I’ll take it from here,” she says, snatching the mic from one of the earnest, often inarticulate salesmen, who believe an insurance policy is the best gift you can offer your loved ones.
No attempt to clarify the various strands could convey the charm of the production that Parson and Lazar have devised and directed. Music and dancing appear unannounced, yet never seem anything but perfectly appropriate, however surprising. Suddenly master and servant break into a version of Okinawan folk dance, with its delicately shuffling steps; Lazar looks beguilingly like an old guy remembering rock ‘n’ roll. Christian, a small, pretty blonde, grabs the mic to deliver the high, fluttering, slightly nasal sounds of Okinawan popular songs. When Hickock speaks of a long-ago love song, Giarmo, seated in the background, strums a zither and sings softly.
Medhi is troubled by his responsibility for the carp, whose owner has died. As he debates the ethics of releasing it into a bigger pond, the other performers tilt the white tables that serve various purposes in the piece—combining them to display projections of increasingly large bodies of water. In the last of these, the lake of a public park, the fish will surely prosper. The need to ease one’s burdens and those of others is just one of the ideas that unfold in this entrancing work like painted fans.