As you approach the Flea Theater to see Antonio Vega’s monologue-play The Duchamp Syndrome, you might notice a coverall-clad janitor doing a little spot cleaning on the sidewalk. Or you may not. And that would be the point.
The janitor’s name is Juan. Portrayed by Vega, he’s the protagonist of this Play Company production, which begins when he comes inside to mop the stage. Urban anonymity is his particular problem. Having fled a painful past in Mexico, he’s now one of the many unsung migrants whose hard work (he’s got two jobs) keeps New York City humming. He’s a victim of what he calls “migratory shrinking syndrome”: Solitude drives him ever deeper into his fantasy life. Fortunately for us, his imagination is rich and strange and manifests itself in delightful magic-realist stage wizardry, courtesy of co-directors Vega and Ana Graham. The show is a sort of meeting point between Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Pee-wee’s Playhouse.
Holed up in his junk-strewn workshop/refuge, Juan divulges his story while staging his alone-in-the-crowd smallness with a succession of puppet doubles. As his isolation worsens, his doppelgängers shrink, to the point that the tiniest must be held by tweezers. (A series of cleverly placed cameras magnify the diminutive effigies for the audience.)
An aspiring comedian, Juan receives tutelage in the stand-up trade from a Redd Foxx–obsessed cockroach (more puppets and dolls) whose material is decidedly blue. He spins elaborate stories of showbiz success for his mother, who sends him fond audio recordings from Mexico. (He also recruits an audience volunteer to stand in for Mom at an elaborately staged fake comedy gig.) Peter Pan–like, he’s pursued by a playful Shadow (played by the nimble Omen Sade), who occasionally takes winsome liberties, capering around the stage while Juan’s back is turned.
The play’s title refers to Juan’s pilgrimage to MoMA to see Marcel Duchamp’s assemblage sculptures (which trouble him) and van Gogh’s Starry Night (which he quite likes). But it’s Duchamp’s methods that the play emulates: Juan transforms cast-off junk and dubious memories into imaginative gold. A Roomba vacuum robot — gifted by Whoo, a generous junk collector, who may be imaginary — transforms into a dance partner, the avatar of Juan’s childhood sweetheart.
Vega is an engaging performer, deftly switching between characters, from the cussing insect to Juan’s apologetic, hangdog presence. Despite the ingenious staging, though, the piece overburdens its slight premise. It’s a theatrical miniature, not a full evening’s work. The narrative isn’t the point, of course — the stage gizmos clearly are — but because the storytelling is retroactive, there’s little to propel the action forward. Juan is existentially stalled and needs to reckon with his past, period.
Despite our protagonist’s status as a migrant worker, Vega’s script appears almost allergic to politics. Juan fled north, it seems, not for pressing economic or social reasons, but to escape his guilt and shame at having caused a terrible accident (one that may not have been his fault at all). Beyond the isolation, his stay in NYC appears relatively untroubled, and he’s wide-eyed about the city’s charms. It’s almost as if Vega is too polite to mention the bigger questions that surround lives like Juan’s. But he’s a talented writer, and he should feel freer to impose. We’ll listen.