Brush up on your Greco-Roman mythology before you travel to Fort Greene for Austin McCormick’s Paris, the latest in his ten-year effort to sex up classic tales. Trained as a baroque dancer, McCormick, a Juilliard grad, marries his formal education to a bold grasp of a louche underworld. At this moment in our fraught election season, his lubricious show seems a perfect antidote to the paroxysms of knee-jerk moralism clogging airwaves and screens. Instead of a playbill, you’re handed a drinks menu; the production makes its priorities clear, but often leaves viewers physically, and metaphysically, in the dark. It takes a while to discern that the line of can-can dancers includes a range of genders, though ultimately they strip down to Swarovski-studded G-strings and codpieces.
The Irondale Center, where Company XIV is in residence through January 7, is a former Sunday-school auditorium, with 28-foot ceilings and a balcony on three sides. As arranged for this show, mimicking a French dance hall, there’s very little “backstage”; performers change their costumes in full view of the crowd. Bare flesh, sometimes combined with sheep masks, provides a welcome leitmotif.
Paris starts slowly, partly because all the music in the first act is recorded. Given the care lavished on other aspects of this production, how hard would it be to haul in an actual harpsichord, and pay a musician? Weak links are the title character himself, Paris (played by Jakob Karr, who seems ill at ease when he’s not upside down or in a split across the bodies of several dancers), and Charlotte Bydwell, a collaborating writer who brings us Zeus as a figure both male and female, costumed in a black suit on her right half and a sparkly mermaid gown on her left. The effort to sustain this illusion makes for some awkward staging, and her voice is less than clear. As the only figure with a substantial speaking role, she needs to be totally audible or it’s just a mess. Mark Van Hare’s sound design needs work, and Jeanette Yew’s lighting could occasionally be stronger; at times the audience has to peer to make out designer Zane Pihlstrom’s spectacular feathers and corsetry. At the end, Helen of Troy’s dance gets captured on a live video feed, but all the writhing in low light feels like an afterthought.
But in the second act, when the beauty contest begins in earnest, you see the power of the undertaking. The candidates vamp before the judges, showing off their impressive skill sets; a clutch of chandeliers, on the ceiling and onstage, add glamour and some light to the proceedings.
The astonishing thing about this production is the caliber of the individual artists. Of the three lovelies vying for a golden apple, Marcy Richardson as Pallas Athena dazzles with both her piercing soprano and her pole dancing. The gorgeous Randall Scotting, a world-class countertenor who commands the stage merely by standing there, plays Juno (a/k/a Hera), singing Handel without any amplification. He begins in a huge pannier skirt and finishes (while singing Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man” in a lower register) in thigh-high patent-leather boots and very little else, except, wait, a cello. The callipygian Puerto Rican chanteuse Storm Marrero, alas the only person of color in the twelve-member cast, plays Venus (a/k/a Aphrodite) and ultimately cops the golden apple, which she immediately presents to Helen of Troy, leading to — well, that’s a story for another show.
You may go for the titillation, and you’ll get it, but you’ll stay for the strong performances and the depth of musical interpretation, the incomparable pole dancing, the numerous offhand vignettes that stud the spaces between the big production numbers. The show jumps genres as blithely as it jumps genders; by the end we’re listening to a French version of “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” and watching a rain of gold confetti. All hail concupiscence.
Directed by Austin McCormick
85 South Oxford Street, Brooklyn
Through November 12