A Week of Playgoing: Target Margin, Witness Relocation & Nonsense Co.

Target Margin, Second Language (Chocolate Factory Theater, through March 5; tickets $15). Since moving to New York last spring, I’ve been living in far South Brooklyn, between Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay, in the middle of city’s largest Russian-speaking community. My neighbors come from Ukraine, Belarus, Mother Russia, and former Soviet satellites in Central Asia, like Uzbekistan. On my street, I’m the only “American” (as they put it) who’s not a first- or second-generation immigrant. And I’m also one of the few people who could be said to be a native English speaker, which means that sometimes I have to pass for a de facto tutor or erstwhile translator (from broken English to functional English–I don’t speak Russian aside from “hello,” “beer/vodka please,” “thank you,” and “sweet dreams”). I’ve helped book flights online, figure out the iTunes store, handle a collections call, and go over ESL home work.

I’m also occasionally called upon to answer mystifying questions, like what the difference between “clothes” and “close” is. It usually comes up because in a twist of transliteration I don’t fully grasp, Russian speakers tend to try to pluralize “clothes,” as in “clotheses.” Explain to them that, no, it’s just “clothes,” they respond, quizzically, “Like a door?”

In Target Margin’s Second Language–in a twist on the notoriously difficult Japanese r/l sound–the misunderstanding over not-quite-homonyms occurs between “bowling” and “boring.” But the principle is the same: Language is hard, full of slippages, and for many people, control of English is a downright existential struggle.

Second Language grew out of (if I’m not entirely botching this) the Chocolate Factory’s ongoing engagement with their community in Long Island City. Partnering with the performing arts center at Long Island Community College, Second Language was developed by Target Margin’s David Herskovits and several professional actors, working with students and non-student community members in a famously diverse area. (LICC claims its student body represents speakers of something like 150 languages.)

The result is a fragmentary deconstruction of the absurdities of language education, culled both from ESL books (Making English serve you!) as well as investigative interviews with non-native speakers, and performed by a combination of professionals and their community collaborators. Performed on a brightly lit white set with Dayglo-y accoutrements, the show is a messy and chaotic evocation of the mystifying complexity of trans-lingual experience. Small scenes are acted out following the stilted dialogues from ESL books (one of which is hanging from the ceiling downstage center as the show opens, quickly kicking into a Bollywood-esque number). Other times you get a brief outburst in Chinese (I think) or Spanish. And still other times, people merely ape speaking in a language we don’t know by delivering toasts as “Hindi Hindi Hindi Hindi Hindi.”

The result is a finely realized, intelligent work that says a lot for what can be accomplished through community outreach, if it’s done in a thoughtful, intelligent, and wholly engaged fashion. If this piece has a weakness, it’s that it primarily treats its subject aesthetically, capturing the experience of not speaking a language without the consequences, which, as someone who’s currently living amongst many poor, recent immigrants,I can assure you is less than half the story. But enough fear and complexity comes through the performances (which were almost all quite good–you probably can’t guess who’s a professional and who’s an amateur) that it would be unfair to say it’s not there, and anyway, I’m certainly personally biased in this regard.

Witness Relocation, Heaven on Earth (La Mama, through February 27; tickets $25/$20). This is third show I’ve see from Dan Safer & co. (including the English language premiere of Five Days in March and I’m Going to Make a Small Incision Behind Your Ear to Check and See If You’re Actually Human last December at the Bushwick Starr), and of the three, it’s the best, fullest realization of what the company seems to be aiming for. A collaboration with the French company ildi ! eldi and with a script by Chuck Mee, Heaven on Earth explores questions of apocalypse and paradise.

I’ve seen shows about paradise before, and first off, I’m just plain thankful that these people, at least, know where Heaven and Apocalypse actually are: in the eyes and fevered imaginations of their beholders. All too often, abstract concepts like these become these tediously belabored images, but Witness Relocation instead focuses not on the things themselves but the people who are thinking about and considering them. At its heart, Heaven on Earth is about how we imagine both sides of the dichotomy in human terms–sublime perfection on the one hand, and non-existence on the other. Both being beyond the scope of the human mind to imagine, what we’re left with is diverse stories, fragments, and attempts to imagine these totalities, ranging from something as simple as a charming romance on a summer’s day, to a discussion of the digitization of human experience and “the singularity,” whatever the hell that might be.

And this being Witness Relocation, linearity isn’t the order of the day anymore than text is the primary means of communication. Safer is as much as a choreographer as a theater director, and this is the piece of the three I’ve seen in which he seems to be most at ease with both, neither one coming at the expense of the other but rather working together or in tandem to deal with the physical and intellectual attempt to imagine utter perfection or distruction, guided by Mee’s spare script, leaving plenty of room for the company to fill out.

Sadly I can’t name all the performers, but members of both ildi ! eldi and Witness Relocation do fine jobs (and who doesn’t love French-accented-English-by-way-Britain?), but Heather Christian definitely commanded notice. I was impressed by her work with The TEAM over the summer, for whom she’s serving as composer for Mission Drift, their new show. Here she has a more aggressive, physical performance  to deliver, and I was wowed.

Nonsense Company, Storm Still (PS 122, through March 6; tickets $20/$15). I’ve been wanting to catch the Nonsense Company’s Storm Still since it was in Seattle almost two years ago, where it came through while playing the fringe circuit. I was I recall, it was on a double-bill with the Missoula Oblongata, a company whose work and ethos I dig, but because of scheduling conflicts I couldn’t make it.

Now, having just seen it at PS 122, I really wish I had caught it back in Seattle, because I sincerely doubt it would have clocked in at over two hours on a double-bill. And seriously, this show’s primary fault–and there’s so much good in it it’s downright tragic–is that it’s way too long, or at least too little bang for the buck.

The concept behind the show is simple enough: in a post-apocalyptic (or concurrently-apocalyptic?) future, three children are barricaded inside their school while a war rages outside. They’ve been in there a while. In fact, they may just have grown into the three twenty-something adults who perform the show. Whatever the case, they’re going a little stir crazy, but rather than turning all Lord of the Flies on one another, they instead endlessly rehearse, develop, research, and perform King Lear.

Now, the one thing I’d caution any reader who’s rolling his eyes at this is, Nonsense Company actually does this well. I agree, the last thing I want to subject myself too is another fringe show deconstructing or recontextualizing Shakespeare. But conceptually, this show is a cut above. Lear actually makes a compelling device by which these three kids can try to make sense of their experience. It is, after all, a play in which a father’s foolishness leads to social chaos (Lear’s screwed-up succession plan leads to both civil war and a foreign invasion). And as far as Shakespeare goes, the world of Lear is anything but a just one; Edmund may be bad because he’s a bastard, but Cordelia dies for no good reason at all. It’s not a tidy world, in other words, but a really messy one in which attempts to see justice fail.

And “justice” is at the center of Storm Still (a stage direction from Act 3, as Lear wanders mad through the storm with the Fool and Edgar disguised), with these three lost kids (played by Nonsense Company’s three members Rick Burkhardt, Andy Gricevich, and Ryan Higgins) searching through the text for answers to why they’re stuck in a school-turned-bunker as, indeed, a rather different sort of storm rages outside, but every bit as insane.

In the quarto version of Lear, Lear stages a mock trial of Goneril and Regan; the fact this scene disappears in the First Folio consumes the young man (or boy) who plays Lear (Ryan Higgins). Indeed, most of Storm Still concerns long dramaturgical discussions as the three kids try to sort out and understand exactly what happens in the play, by way of the Oresteia, psychoanalysis and so on.

The thing is, eventually these exercises become so long and obscure, all sight is lost of the purpose. The length of each act (Storm Still features five) is written on a chalkboard upstage. Act 4, clocking in at nearly 50 minutes (act 3 was over 30) was the killer, rambling on so long it was hard to make heads or tails of what they were even aiming for.

Which isn’t to say it was bad, per se. Higgins’s performance was great, as was Rick Burkhardt’s, whose character had adopted a sort of friendly-physician-cum-psychologist persona for Act 4, probing Higgins (whose character sees himself as an actor inhabiting and commenting on the character of Lear) in the guise of friendly conversation. Indeed, the acting on all three performers’ parts was subtle and effective, but in the end there was just too much show to digest.

What’s interesting is that Storm Still was originally commissioned as part of a project to re-imagine Lear. Five companies were each assigned a single act (Nonsense got Act 3). I can’t help but wonder if, in the two or three years since they conceived it (during which they made their way from Madison to Brooklyn; originally the company hails from San Diego), it hasn’t grown into this unruly beast, or whether it’s always been unwieldly and in need of cutting. The point is, the three performers were great and their ideas solid–with a good director to help reshape and pare down so much raw material, Storm Still could be an amazing play.

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