Big Dance Theater’s “Supernatural Wife” at BAM

Molly Hickok in Supernatural Wife (photo by Julieta Cervantes)

I’m still a relative newcomer to New York, which means that I’m still working my way through the living history of all these famous performance companies I’ve either followed from afar or learned about in college. Which can be an awkward place to come from, because no matter how talented or visionary, it’s hard to live up to that kind of expectation (and not the fairest way to approach their work, either). I was not overly impressed with the recent work I’ve seen by SITI or the Wooster Group, to name but two. Sure, the quality was there, but none of the magic or urgency. And yes, those companies are famous for the seminal work they did years ago, not things like Vieux Carre. But it is, on some level, disappointing to be brought back down to earth.

So I guess what I’m trying to get at is that part of me was not only relieved but surprised by how much I enjoyed Big Dance Theater‘s Supernatural Wife earlier this week, where it’s playing as part of BAM’s Next Wave Festival (through Dec. 3; tickets $20+). They decidedly lived up to reputation.

The play is a new translation (by Anne Carson) and adaptation of Euripides’ Alcestis. Euripides’ work is the most problematic–or maybe just most modern-seeming–of the great Greek dramatists, and Alcestis is one of the strangest. Neither a tragedy nor a comedy, it combines elements of both, similar to Shakespeare’s romances. Briefly: King Admetus made a deal in the past to get a supernaturally long life, but he had to find a replacement for his death. His parents won’t accept it, so it falls to his wife, Alcestis, to take his place, which leaves him distraught. Then, uber-dude Heracles shows up to just, you know, hang out and party. Not wanting to turn the son of a god away, Admetus lies about being in mourning and invites him in. In due time, Heracles learns about Admetus’s deception and, pissed, decides to get revenge by…wrestling Death in order to bring Alcestis back to Admetus so they can be happy together.

Obviously, Big Dance Theater’s production ranges far and wide in presenting the work. For reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on, the production seems deeply influenced by Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle (or maybe just the same things influenced Brecht)–there’s a large circle center-stage, painted to look like (I think) tire tracks, as though cars in middle of a field drove the circle into existence. And the cast is dressed in Eastern European clothes, the men in long patterned skirts from (or so I gather from Facebook sources) Romania.

Director Paul Lazar uses the circle to establish a playing area within which the performers are in character, though plenty of the presentational performance takes place outside of it. For some scenes, the cast of six (including Culturebot’s own Aaron Mattocks, who does a fantastic turn as Death) presents a stripped-down physical performance, utilizing nothing more than movement, song, and speech. Other scenes make use of televisions rolled in, Wooster-like, on chairs, and Heracles enters performing on a rock solo on a full drum kit.

But the point is, it never felt busy or over-the-top. Quite the opposite, for all the distancing and examination of the performance of the story, it remained, at heart, an emotionally moving picture of love and redemption. At the risk of sounding cheesy, I actually teared up a little in the final scene, when Heracles–still cocksure and a bit hammy–brings Alcestis back to Admetus (played, with a great fake mustache, by Molly Hickok). It was a great example about how presentational performance doesn’t inherently sacrifice emotional resonance in order to offer a broader examination of the material.

Anyway, I was deeply impressed by the show overall–the performances were all fantastic and the design was strong and distinctive without overwhelming the piece. But mostly it was great to see how the company integrated the various modes of performance. Annie-B Parson’s choreography was strong and integrated into the piece in a way you don’t always see with the company’s many, many dance-theater descendants and imitators. In the end, the original is still the best.

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