Shadows at the Collapsable Hole

Over the past few years there have been a number of stagings of Cassavetes films. 2008 saw Ivo Van Hove‘s raw, raucous and gripping multimedia production of Opening Night at BAM and 2010 brought us Doris Mirescu’s sprawling and uneven staging of Husbands at the Under The Radar Festival. Now Hoi Polloi, under the direction of Alec Duffy, has taken on the challenge by staging Cassavetes’ 1959 film Shadows. The film is considered to be one of the most important works of American independent cinema and its mix of improvised dialogue, jazz music, adventurous camera work, in combination with what was then a controversial subject – interracial dating – made it a kind of cultural touchstone for its representation of the Beat moment in NYC. Duffy and his collaborators have captured that energy and edge to perfection, turning the garage space of the Collapsable Hole into a Beat-era hip happening jazz joint and man those cats can swing! 

Duffy, no slouch as an actor  himself, has assembled a supergroup of downtown theater artists and introduced us to a bunch of new(ish) faces. In Shadows Duffy reunites with Three Pianos collaborator Rick Burkhardt and brings in Jason Craig and Jessica Jelliffe of Banana Bag & Bodice, as well as downtown favorite Mikeah Ernest Jennings who has brought so much to the work of Big Art Group and Young Jean Lee, to name just two.  Paola di Tolla, who we first saw in Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone’s This Time Tomorrow is a fresh face to keep an eye on, and Duane Boutte, Julian Rozzell, Jr. and Dustin Fontaine, all accomplished actors who appear to be new(ish) to downtown, are all stellar performers. The ensemble interacts so smoothly and effortlessly you’d think they’d been working together for years.

You walk into the Hole, grab a beer and take a seat either on the “stage” or in the seats – but one way or another the action will happen all around you. Suddenly Burkhardt and his ensemble – Ezra Gale on double bass and, on Saturday night, Steven Leffue on sax – kick into a crazy jazz riff as the room explodes into action and from there we just go, man! There are a few intertwined story lines. Bennie (Duane Boutte), a young jazz musician and Hugh (Julian Rozzell, Jr.), a crooner, are brothers. They live with their sister Lelia (Paola Di Tolla) who is a beautiful, 20 year old, light-skinned girl with romantic inclinations and a fierce independent streak. Hugh is trying to break out of his rut of crummy gigs in two-bit rundown dives introducing girlie shows, pleading with his manager Rupert (Mikeah Ernest Jennings) to get him something better. Along the way they meet a sleazy promoter/club owner named Jack Ackerman (Dustin Fontaine) who essentially blackballs them when Hugh complains about having to introduce the bimbos.

Hugh’s brother Bennie hangs out with two other aimless, Beat young men, Dennis (Alec Duffy) and Tom (Jason Craig). They sit in coffee shops and bars, play cards, go to parties and generally while away the time between trying to pick up chicks. One night they’re sitting with Lelia and her boyfriend/mentor David, a pompous pseudo intellectual jerk-off played perfectly by Rick Burkhardt, when he invites them to a “literary party”. At the party Lelia meets Tony (also played by Dustin Fontaine), a smooth-talking rake who doesn’t realize that Lelia is actually black. They start dating. Drama ensues.

Over the course of the show we jump around NYC from downtown to the Metropolitan Museum where Bennie, Dennis and Tom spend a memorably irreverent afternoon checking out the statues. We go to parties and talk about Sartre and psychoanalysis, we watch the characters “dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night”.

All of the actors play a multitude of characters that change, literally, at the drop of a hat or by wearing a wig. I was going to try and call out one or two performances for special notice, but I couldn’t pick just one or two. The whole cast was delightful, whether they were conveying the soulful yearning of the struggling artist or a comically over the top exotic dancer at a party, they switch roles seamlessly, clearly and cleanly. Even as they take on new identities, we as an audience are never confused for a moment. We watch as they dance, they jump, they jive, they cajole, they rage against each other, looking for love, looking for meaning, looking for connection.

Even as they handle their acting duties with dedication and vitality and emotional intensity, they are also creating the set and setting – moving furniture, focusing and repositioning lighting, opening up the garage door at the Hole to let in the ever-present night and the gawking strangers on the street, captured by surprise. And surprise is a key element – the action unfolds in logical but surprising ways, the whole show flows like music, like a beautiful, aching, joyful, transcendent riff on life, art, love, politics and the magic that is New York City. Shadows has the literary erudition of  ERS’ Gatz and the chaotic, edginess of Radiohole, combined with the musical cleverness of Three Pianos.

I see a LOT of downtown theater and this is the kind of show that reminds you why people go to theater in the first place. This is the type of show that just makes you glad you live in NYC, surrounded by amazing creative people who can overcome all the daunting odds of being an artist in this city and create magic. I’m so glad I saw this show I really can’t begin to describe it.


It continues through November 12 at the Collapsable Hole.

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  1. Pingback: Alec Duffy Talks Secret Societies & Hoi Polloi’s New Show | Culturebot
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