Small is beautiful, no doubt, and ours is a fragmented world, so wildly complex that to concentrate on one small fragment of it at a time appears reasonable. But small, for all its beauty, can sometimes seem merely small; fragments carry an uncomfortable sense of their own fragmentariness. This past week, two good examples came my way: The new musical See Rock City & Other Destinations, produced by Transport Group at the Duke on 42nd Street, presents a set of short pieces linked by the theme of travel; the Georgian puppeteer Rezo Gabriadze’s The Battle of Stalingrad, which performed briefly at Clark Studio as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, displays a wide range of incidents loosely connected to that pivotal World War II event.
Both are miniature works, made up of small, discrete fragments. Both supplied frequent moments of beauty within their smallness. And though they couldn’t have been less alike in outlook, they displayed a surprising amount in common, in terms of sensibility. But as you’ve probably guessed, for all their beautiful moments, both ultimately struck me as falling short, as being stuck in their smallness and their fragmentary structures. Neither had found a way to build any overarching transcendence out of its careful miniaturizing. I came away loving the integrity with which they clung to their tiny specifics, but saddened that their passion had led to nothing greater.
See Rock City is a set of (mostly) two-person encounters, each draped around a trip to a notable tourist site: A drifter in search of meaning hooks up with an all-night-diner waitress on his way to the title locale; near the Alamo, a lawyer bumps into a schoolteacher nursing her wheelchair-bound grandfather; two prep-school best buddies find out more than they wanted to know about each other while playing hooky at Coney Island; three squabbling sibs debate scattering their father’s ashes on an Alaskan glacier cruise; a hesitant bride-to-be tours Niagara Falls with the guide from hell; and a UFO obsessive, dumped by his girlfriend and his job, spends a chilly night hoping for a close encounter in Roswell, New Mexico.
The sketches, intercut, are all pleasantly diverting to watch; the airy, free-form staging, by Jack Cummings III, makes them more so. The evening starts with the ushers setting up lawn chairs for the audience, while the cast mingles with the crowd. Cleared of its usual hulking metallic bleachers, the Duke looks like a party space instead of a cramped studio theater. But the writing, though skillful, only intermittently supports the production’s airy spirit. The stories often seem too little, too perfunctory, too patly sentimental, for the lofty spaciousness of their telling. And, except for the bride’s terrors and the UFO watch, they have little to do with their respective settings. (So a lawyer from a nearby office eats his lunch at the Alamo—this couldn’t happen at the Liberty Bell or Coit Tower?)
The writers’ mild penchant for the grotesque keeps getting becalmed by a counter-impulse toward gentling everything down (there’s practically nothing spooky or freaky about the Coney Island freak-show and spook-house sequences), and librettist Adam Mathias’s temptation to spell out the moral produces a painful snag at the end of the Niagara Falls episode. Brad Alexander’s music, though melodically unexceptional, is often subtler about making its effects; the galumphing waltz-clog vamp that starts off each of the UFO watcher’s accelerating rants is a particularly witty stroke.
The seven performers, all game and appealing, do what they can to brighten the material’s less lustrous passages. Donna Lynne Champlin and Jonathan Hammond, who’ve achieved great things in nonmusicals for Transport Group, get less opportunity here (though Hammond does jack some fiendish glee into the sinister tour guide); Ryan Hilliard, in two tiny secondary roles, gets hardly any chance at all. But Sally Wilfert’s tenderness gives distinction to the thinnest of the pieces; Stanley Bahorek handles both the UFO nut and the more hung-up of the high school duo with commanding resourcefulness; lanky Bryce Ryness brings each of his two roles an imaginative physicality (though his tendency to make vocal entrances off-key is a drawback); and diminutive Mamie Parris, as the waitress who hitches a ride to Rock City, is clearly a professional thief who specializes in audience hearts.
The Battle of Stalingrad is a more perplexingly scattered collection of tidbits. For Russians, and those who know a little modern history, its title evokes one of the most prolonged (seven months) and devastating sieges of the war. Also pivotal: It saved the free world. Historians have generally concluded that if Hitler had not thrown so much manpower and materiel at Stalingrad, and had not, like Napoleon before him, been undone by the Russian winter, Nazi Germany might have come very close to victory in Europe. So a certain amount of international gratitude always walks hand in hand with an awareness of the grueling horrors that left such deep scars on the area’s terrain, and on the two generations of Russians that grew up in its shadow.
Neither the battle’s historical significance nor its horrific slaughter, though, preoccupies Gabriadze. His piece begins with a gaunt figure emerging from what looks like a pile of sand or dust. With a trembling puppet hand, it digs mementos from the sand—a red star, a black cross—then sifts dust over them. The sand-spilling gesture recurs as a motif throughout. But few of Gabriadze’s scenes evoke the violent struggles that turn armies into rubble and dust. He shifts erratically, almost nervously, this way and that, from a prewar Vienna café to a Jewish wedding in wartime, from troop trains and battlefield horses to Stalin’s command center. His compassion for animate creatures extends beyond humans. Horses—endearingly mangy-coated Rocinantes with spindly bamboo-shoot legs—become focal figures; the closing battlefield threnody is moaned by an antiwar ant. Superbly designed and animated, Gabriadze’s creations rivet the attention; only when the piece ends, and the puppeteers, charmingly, lay the characters out before you for a curtain call, do you wonder what overall meaning these quirky enchantments were intended to convey.