Choreographer Tamar Rogoff makes movies as well as live movement theater. She’s great at rupturing the barrier between action and audience — breaking the fourth wall — surrounding performers with spectators. In her new Grand Rounds, she turns the huge, flexible Ellen Stewart Theatre into something like a soundstage, establishing “close-ups” and “wide shots” and constructing a range of environments in the rambling space.
The daughter of a doctor, Rogoff is also interested in combining fictive and autobiographical material. The thread binding this piece is her enthusiasm for the Cherry Ames young-adult series, which was first published in 1943 and ran through 1968. Ames began as a student nurse with a flair for detective work, à la Nancy Drew, and in Grand Rounds, she’s the favorite character of a ten-year-old girl, played with bright-eyed attention by tap-dancing fifth-grader Cadence Rotarius, who’s almost always glued to a book. What she reads is shared with us via voiceover, as she tiptoes around her extended family’s house in baby-doll pajamas, wielding her trusty flashlight.
All of this is fascinating and disconcerting. The design of the piece gives you license to stare. When you’re sitting less than three feet from a couple (Jake Szczypek and Emily Pope) on a bed, and the man starts acting violently toward the woman, your urge might be to flee, or to intervene. These are people you’ve just met, and they’re not talking, so you have no idea what their problem is; all you know is that their daughter is spying on them, and so are you.
On another bed (three are surrounded by liquor boxes painted to look like wood on which we sit to observe the action; on a fourth, “upstage,” our heroine lies on her belly reading), the girl’s grandparents (Glen Heroy and Cyndy Gilbertson) spend a restless night. He’s a large, nurturing presence, and she struggles with Parkinson’s disease. On a third bed the girl’s big brother (Morgan Sullivan), also restless, seems to be in the grip of a nightmare about war. He hides under the bed, and then bench-presses it.
Rogoff doesn’t specify the period in which Grand Rounds is set, but snippets of news from an invisible radio in each bedroom hint at the era of the Korean War. Nightgowns on the female characters and tunes on the soundtrack speak to mid-century America, as does the absence of electronic media.
The second part of the eighty-minute piece, for which viewers are reseated around the edges of the performance space, farther away from the action, is more problematic. The beds are gone. On a high platform sits a hospital corridor, where nurses, doctors, and patients break out of their normal routines to dance to Fifties tunes, at one point actually forming a kick-line. On the floor below, family members build a wall out of the liquor boxes to separate the warring spouses; then they set the boxes in rows and attach fake gravestones. The brother turns up first in a military uniform and then in the upstairs hospital, suddenly dead.
This critic couldn’t figure out why young nurse Cherry (Nitzan Mager) and her bookworm fan wound up wearing tutus and dancing in a graveyard. It emerged during a post-show Q&A that Rogoff wants to engage “the whole round of life in its heartbreaking fullness,” including the issue of death, and chose the second act of the nineteenth-century ballet Giselle as the vehicle for doing that.
Real doctors and nurses collaborated on the development of the piece, and some appear in it. Stranded among the architectural demands of live theater, the allusiveness of dance, and the intimate possibilities of cinema, it’s a thought-provoking study of human challenges, of how adult behavior affects the young, of how world events can upend family life. If you have in your circle precocious tweens, bring them to see it; if not, go yourself. You’ll all find plenty to look at, listen to, and think about.
Tamar Rogoff Performance Projects
66 East 4th Street
Through May 14