Another Week In Review(s)

Well I’m sniffling and coughing and  just recovering from being bed-ridden with this cold that’s been going ’round. But it was worth it considering all the great shows I saw over the past week before I got taken down. Here’s Andy’s Week That Was:

MONDAY JANUARY 10

We started out the evening with Annie Dorsen’s Hello, Hi There at PS122. This was a decisively divisive piece. Some folks – like me – loved it and some folks just HATED it! Basically the premise is that Annie has programmed two computers (“chatbots”) to have a conversation about a Foucault/Chomsky debate that is simultaneously being screened on stage left. I admit, like some detractors, I kind of wanted to just watch the damn debate. But at the same time I was fascinated by how close the chatbots were to achieving actual banality. It was striking. I guess it also depends on the night you see it, because theoretically they could get stuck in weird conversational loops. But the night I saw it it was humming along quite nicely and you could easily have been fooled into thinking it was real people talking, not computers. “Hello Hi There” is like the Pong of virtual theater. It is a very rudimentary experiment but one that will surely pave the way for more sophisticated efforts to come.

Next I ran over to LaMama to see Show Your Face by Betontanc and Umka LV. It started out promisingly enough with good music and cool puppetry. But overall the Kafkaesque story of political repression didn’t grab me. The little snowsuit guy was cute though.

Then it was back to PS122 for Ranters Theater’s Holiday. Jeremy didn’t like it very much but I found it kind of charming, if a little long. Two guys, ostensibly on holiday, have a lengthy series of seemingly meaningless chats. Couldn’t tell if it was meant to be metaphysical or not, there were small moments of interesting tensions between the two actors and a few clues here and there that something more was going on than met the eye. But basically it was whimsical small talk at a snail’s pace. I found it engaging enough and occasionally quite funny, though rarely deeply poignant or insightful. Hmmmm. Did you see it? Debate amongst yourselves or in the comments.

TUESDAY JANUARY 11

Started out with Kim Noble Will Die at PS122. Wow. What a disturbing freak out of a show. Kim Noble is depressed and suicidal and he wants to share every intimate detail with you including recorded phone calls with his exes, video of a friend of his from the psychiatric ward cutting herself,  cumshots galore (with the spooge being distributed in various places) and more. Horrifying and disturbing and frequently hilarious in the blackest of ways, Kim Noble succeeded in making me squirm. Which is not easy to do.  A funny and frightening and disturbing show.

Next we had some dinner and moseyed on over to Jump at The Public – words by David Greenspan, directed by Joanne Akalaitis. It is the story of actress Sarah Bernhardt, interpolated with the story of Tosca. Some people I know LOVED this show. I wasn’t that taken with it. Not that it was bad, it wasn’t. It just wasn’t my cup of tea.

THURSDAY JANUARY 13

We saw The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church at St. Ann’s Warehouse.  We had the good fortune of seeing Daniel Kitson several years ago in Edinburgh and were looking forward to this show. We were not disappointed. In this possibly-true tale (there’s always an element of doubt, in my mind, anyway) Kitson finds the letters of one Gregory Church, who sent out some on the occasion of his suicide, only to change his mind when he receives replies.  Kitson is an engaging and entertaining storyteller, spinning a labyrinthine story examining the minutiae of this man’s life. As he goes you see the myriad ways that our lives are interconnected and interdependent. Kitson ends up playing detective and discovering that Church has not, in fact, committed suicide in the end (as is commonly believed) but just died of old age. It’s a fantastic story well-told by a master storyteller. So glad I went.

FRIDAY JANUARY 14

I went to a benefit thing celebrating ADF’s Charles Reinhardt. That was fun. I saw performances from Shen Wei, Pilobolus, Eiko and Koma and Paul Taylor Dance Co. I apologize to Sara Juli who was sitting next to me – my cold had started to kick in and I was sniffling the whole time.

SATURDAY
JANUARY 15

Saturday afternoon we moderated a panel at the Museum of Arts and Design about Tennessee Williams as part of the cultural programming related to Travis Chamberlain’s Green Eyes. It was about Williams and the Avant Garde and included Liz Lecompte, David Herskovitz, Moises Kaufman and Travis Chamberlain. It went really well and I had a good time.

That night took us to The Kitchen to go see Sarah Michelson’s Devotion.  Despite Claudia LaRocco’s rave review in the Times, I was kind of nonplussed.  I loved Richard Maxwell’s text but I didn’t know how to take the overall piece. Was it supposed to be a sincere examination of the notion of devotion? Was it a cynical take-down? After all the back wall of the theater was dominated by a realistic oil painting of Michelson with Maxwell’s head in her lap, like a Pieta. And there were other realistic oil paintings of the two creators, reminiscent of religious paintings to be found in religious people’s houses. Not to mention that the sweatsuits worn by the performers were embroidered (or possibly bedazzled) with a line drawing of Michelson’s face.  So who is being devoted to what? I found it dramaturgically confusing.

As always, though, Michelson gets great work from her dancers. They were all extraordinary – precise, athletic and tireless.  And Bravo to Jim Fletcher for his heroic exertions. I never got bored or tired of watching them dance  – it was hypnotic and occasionally very powerful.  But overall I didn’t get the same visceral thrill that I had gotten from earlier Michelson pieces and I was left with some serious questions about what she was trying to explore.

SUNDAY JANUARY 16

Sunday afternoon took us to LaMama to see the final performance of Living in Exile by Jon Lipsky, directed by Christopher McElroen and starring T. Ryder Smith. It was a disturbing and exciting show – very powerful, intimate and thought-provoking.

The audience is ushered into an apartment (there are only 17 people at a time) where they are seated around a living room table and surrounded by TVs, each playing something different. The hostesses offer us food and wine, take our coats and make sure we’re comfortable. We are encouraged to keep our phones on and, in fact, production assistants come by and take our phone numbers. As the banalities play in sensory overload on the television screens, everyone’s phones ring and we pick them up to hear a voice reciting The Iliad in ancient Greek.

That’s, essentially, where Smith takes over – narrating the story of The Iliad, playing the parts alternately of Achilles and Patrocles. In his effort he is supported by two lovely and talented actresses – Carmen Chaplin and Rasha Zamamiri – playing conquered women/priestesses.  All of the actors acquit themselves admirably, balancing intimacy and “acting”, finding just the right tones at the right moments to bring these difficult scenes to life.

I admit, I’ve never read The Iliad (I know, I know) but what ensues in Living In Exile is as harrowing account of war as I have ever imagined.  And not just any war but a brutal war of attrition that grinds on and on for ten years. (Much like America’s current wars).

In close quarters we learn of the depredations of war, the brutality inflicted on the conquered by the invaders, we learn of futile resistance and sheer inhumanity. All of it acted out, symbolically and viscerally, in front of you. Smith as actor is literally bringing the war into your living room. He transforms from new recruit to grizzled veteran before our eyes, slowly transforming from man to beast, from farmer to destroyer. It is an impressive performance. The actresses are also a powerful presence. In one sequence Ms. Zamamiri says her lines in what seemed to be Arabic. This added not only a layer of contemporary relevance but also reinforced the clash of cultures and misunderstanding in the original text. It is a simple effect but beautiful and disarming nonetheless. It is unclear at times whether the two women are playing one character or multiple characters, their identities shift, as does T. Ryder Smith’s and overall it reinforces the sense of bewilderment, alientation and confusion of war.

And all this is happening with the TV monitors silently and accusingly flickering in the background. We have been given video cameras and are videotaping the whole thing as it unfurls in front of us. The entire production is a conflation of the comfort of the living room and the violence of war and it definitely indicts us for our indifference and disengagement from the horrors our government is inflicting on others in our name. Or in the name of Democracy.

Of all the politically charged work I saw in Under The Radar, this one seemed to be the most disruptive and upending. It is partially a show, partially a ritual and exorcism and accusation. It marries all the technology of the moment to one of Western civilization’s oldest and starkest accounts of war to make the connection between past and present, to reveal how little has changed and to challenge us, finally, to learn from our history and try to take action.

Good stuff. Hopefully the show will come back in some form so more people can get a chance to see it.

FINALLY, on Sunday night, exhausted but not beaten, we set out to see Daniel Fish’s Tom Ryan Thinks He’s James Mason Starring in a Movie By Nicholas Ray in which a Man’s Illness Provides an Escape from the Pain, Pressure and Loneliness of Trying to be the Ultimate American Father, Only to Drive Him Further Into the More Thrilling Though Possibly Lonelier Roles of Addict and Misunderstood Visionary at Incubator Arts Project.

We’re a big fan of Daniel Fish’s and this new show did not disappoint. Basically the two actors play all the roles as they re-enact a film by Nicholas Ray. In the film, a husband, Ed, is found to have a disease whose symptoms can only be mitigated by cortisone. Unfortunately cortisone causes psychosis in some patients and so he has to make a choice between living in psychosis or dying of his disease. TROUBLE!!!

It is a simple enough premise but delivered with extraordinary skill and precision by the actors Thomas Jay Ryan and Christina Rouner. The simplicity of the set (just a big, blank, grey wall) and the lighting (two big film lights, mostly) belies the intricacy of the emotional terrain. Ryan and Rouner are perfectly matched as they spar with each other.  At first it is a little disorienting to try and follow who is playing which character – they switch admirably between their main characters and supporting roles – but soon enough they establish a rhythm and it becomes part of the thrill of the piece.

Fish has directed the show as cleanly as the set and lighting – each interaction between Ryan and Rouner is precise and unambiguous, as the stakes rise between the two and the story starts to careen out of control, they each exercise remarkable restraint, building up a delicious tension that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

This is theater-lover’s theater at its best. Don’t miss it. It is playing ‘til the 22nd.

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