The imported Belgian Spiegeltent that graces Bard’s campus for the college’s annual SummerScape and the Bard Music Festival has probably seen decades of cabaret performers. I’ll bet, however, that its wooden floors, mirrored walls, stained-glass panels, and red velvet ceiling have witnessed nothing like Susan Marshall’s Sawdust Palace, created in collaboration with her five wonderful performers. As in all her works, including her recent, Bessie Award–winning Cloudless, Marshall—gifted with a warm, sophisticated wit and rampant imagination—marries the everyday with the mysterious. The dancers perform absurd tasks as if these were perfectly natural and neither minimize nor exaggerate the effort. By the time they’ve finished the 20 little acts that make up Sawdust Palace, I’m in love with them all.
Since this summer’s festival is devoted to the music of Edward Elgar, Marshall incorporates four of his piano pieces, but how they’re played and what they accompany might surprise the composer. Pianist Stephen Gosling begins to play “Salut d’Amour,” then stops and turns around as if he’s forgotten something. He has indeed: Kristen Hollinsworth—soignée in a gray satin evening gown—has come slowly through the semi-circular seating and advanced onto the key-shaped stage. Gosling picks her up and sits on the piano bench with her on his lap. Her arms embrace him; her head nestles dreamily on his shoulder. Reaching around her, he starts the piece again.
How’s that for an opening number? The strangenesses multiply, giving a new meaning to the notion of music-hall tricks. After Luke Miller has finished wrenching his long limbs around while Edith Piaf chants of life and love, he drinks water, splashes some on his face, then sprays it liberally (the kids in the audience love this). Miller hooks Hollinsworth into a suspended harness (Kasia Walicka Maimone’s gaudy, layered costumes are endlessly adaptable) and swings her around in a dashing tango, while she manages to hook her pointed toe into a very large towel and mop the floor. To another tango-ish selection, Miller and Darren M. Wright strip down as they dance; Joseph Poulson picks up each scattered garment and tosses it to Petra van Noort while walking in on his hands.
It’s hard to pick a favorite among the beguilingly absurd events. But one sure winner is “Chicken Flicker.” Hollinsworth preens into view wearing a tutu and breastpiece made of feathers. To the hectic strains of Mikis Theodorakis’s “Zorba’s Dance,” Poulson sets her on his lap and plucks her, feverish with the pleasure of it all. The children scramble to collect the flying debris.
It takes a major choreographer to make a minor work huge.