Five ‘Til (Solo) at Dixon Place, Landscape With The Fall of Icarus at Abrons

Last Thursday we went on a whim to go check out FIVE ‘TIL (solo) by Edwin Lee Gibson at Dixon Place. Gibson wrote and performed the show, it was directed by Daphne Richards with musical direction by Michael Pemberton.

It was conventional solo show fare – it is the story of one Dante Wallace, a career criminal who is accused of molesting and killing his girlfriend’s daughter, a young child. He is waiting on death row in Huntsville Texas State Prison and the show is stream-of-consciousness imagining of the doomed man’s thoughts in his final five minutes. In a mix of song, spoken word and monologue, Gibson recounts Wallace’s side of the story – he proclaims his innocence – as he meditates on the life that brought him to this terrible moment.

Gibson is a talented and engaging performer – he received an OBIE Award for Outstanding Performance for his portrayal of Oedipus in Will Power’s The Seven – and he makes a compassionate hero out of a relatively unlikeable character. The show moves fluidly from song to spoken word to monologue and Gibson convincingly portrays a host of different characters in the service of the story. Gibson’s voice is warm and raspy, his face and eyes are expressive and melancholy, overall it is his charisma as a performer that gives the show its strength.

Enjoyable though it is, for a show taking on such a significant subject, it feels inconsequential. The stakes couldn’t be higher – a man’s life is on the line – but the show doesn’t resonate on that level. It goes by like a glossy overview of some of the topics related to the death penalty without really digging in or complicating matters. FIVE ‘TIL (solo) was originally presented by Dixon Place and I had to wonder why they were bringing it back now. Topically, it didn’t feel like we were covering much new ground and formally it was also very familiar and well-trodden territory. A perfectly solid solo work ably performed, but not much new here.

Which is not the case with Samuael Topiary’s Landscape With The Fall of Icarus at Abrons Arts Center, which we saw on Saturday night. We had seen a workshop version of the show at Dixon Place a few months ago and since then the creative team had worked a lot on it. The new version of the show was shorter, more focused and more composed. The video design, by Topiary and Peter Kerlin, was well-integrated into the overall performance as was musical accompaniment by C. Ryder Cooley and Jon Moniaci. The whimsical costumes by Jocelyn Davis added a surreal, playful element to the proceedings and the set, simple as it was, was very effective.

Basically the show is a set of meditations on New York, capitalism, commerce and creativity. It starts with Topiary entering as the painter Brueghel and telling the story of his painting “Landscape With The Fall of Icarus” – which lays the conceptual groundwork for the rest of the piece. From there we move into a narrative by Henry Hudson as he explores the river that now bears his name, an interlude with the Minotaur, a colorful re-imagining of Amelia Earhart and concludes with a speech by David Rockefeller and the construction of the World Trade Center. Interspersed into the stories are songs, videos and lectures that tie together the various strands of thought being explored.

The subject matter – particularly the correlation between the banking crisis of Brueghel’s time and our own – seemed particularly relevant and with the 10th anniversary of 9/11 coming up, it seems like an appropriate time to remember the origins of the Twin Towers.

Topiary is an engaging performer and of nimble imagination. She juxtaposes these characters with video imagery and sound to create a dense multimedia web where art, architecture, mythology and Mammon converge. As opposed to the early work in progress version, this version turned down the didacticism and was alternately humorous and insightful. Still a bit heavy-handed at times, the show had a much clearer arc this time around. The connections between the staged situations/characters revealed themselves through context without being re-explained through lengthy sidebars.

I thought it was a neat trick that the show opens in a very confined space – Topiary enters from the house and plays the first part in front of a movable wall with a projection of the Brueghel painting – and slowly with each sequence the set is stripped away until the final monologue is performed in front of a wall-sized projection of the World Trade Center. It was evidence of the thoughtfulness that Topiary and her director, Miguel Gutierrez, put into every component of the show. That our sense of perspective would shift in our engagement with the event of performance, just as our sense of perspective shifts in apprehension of Brueghel’s painting, is a clever aesthetic grace note to a dense, complicated and thoughtful show.

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