Behemoth Love at The Brick
I’ve always been drawn and inspired by the tense, explosive, playful chaos of Buran Theatre productions, which always seem to be punctuated by some sort of exploding, dribbling, cake-in-the-face mess making. Given their rather rambunctious legacy, I approached their newest production, Mammoth, running at the The Brick through May 23, with certain expectations of mayhem.
In the world of Buran, Mammoth is of a distinctly new and starker ilk. The piece begins and is continually grounded in stillness and quietude, and has an overarching, percolating sense of longing. It is very much a love story, as foretold by the subtitle. Throughout the opening dialogue, a somewhat staccato and subtly absurdist confession of love from Lover (Starr Busby) to Beloved (Erin Mallon), I can’t help thinking back to my own forlorn high school years reading Of Human Bondage and a single haunting line I’ve always feared to be true: “There is always one who loves, and one who lets himself be loved.”
But Mammoth love is not exactly human love, or at least, the nature of love in Mammoth’s universe is quite singular. The characters feel distinctly and purposefully anonymous. Names are never spoken, identities are unfixed. Even gender seems to be a remarkably absent construct. The four lead performers are all women—a truly outstanding ensemble including Kristine Haruna Lee and Tina Shepard in addition to Busby and Mallon—but despite their recognizably female bodies, in performance, they seem consummately unconscious of womanhood (I can’t help but wonder if co-directors Adam Burnett and Anne Haney aren’t slyly hinting at some possible future where men as we know them have gone extinct and women have evolved to live, love and reproduce on their own).
More than anything, these nameless, genderless characters are simply mammals that are alive and looking for something. Their ostensible, outward search for extinct beasts echoes and suggests a soft metaphor for their quest for love. And their quest for love, at its core, is a desire to feel that they’re not alone.
The piece begins on a glacier and continues in a laboratory – an expansive white canvas suggesting both a mass of ice and a clinical floor, elegantly linking the emotional isolation the two settings share. Mammoth plays at having a vague memory of what love is, or what love must have been like. Much as The Scientist (Shepard) endeavors to synthetically manufacture a wooly mammoth heart, Lover and Beloved struggle through the trappings of romance. If love can’t be found, perhaps it can be forged with certain procedures and ingredients such as the right words, dancing, and in one scene, a soup (love potion?) of poisonous mushrooms, somewhat sinisterly staged to a distorted, tripped out version of The Temptation’s “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.” The saddest question Mammoth seems to pose is: if something’s gone extinct, can you ever get it back? And how can you be sure it really existed in the first place?
But lest my reading of these parallels becomes too reductive, I have to recall a moment when The Scientist (Shepard) herself insists that her Shadow (Haruna Lee) not take things too literally – “Nooo! I shouldn’t work with such literal scientists. Where is your nerve? Your guts? Your sense of HUMOR! Your dreams? Where’s your joie de vivre? Here: Dance with me dancewithme dancewithme dancewith me.” I have to imagine this moment is a little tip for the audience not to search too hard to connect the dots here.
I appreciate and am grateful for Adam Burnett’s unwavering instinct as a writer to allow for space and multiplicity. Mammoth, even more so than Buran’s previous work, with its loose narrative and clean, uncluttered language, leaves the audience plenty of air for cerebral exploration and open emotional investigation.
One of Mammoth’s greatest pleasures–as I have not harped on this nearly enough–are the terrific performances given by the entire cast. Casting has been spot on in every Buran production I’ve seen to date (with multigenerational and multi-racial ensembles something of a trademark) and Mammoth is no exception. Kristine Haruna Lee is especially delightful in her instinctively absurdist and vulnerable interpretation of the Shadow (perhaps the most fluid, unsituated character in the piece).
As much as I love the frenetic energy of Buran’s previous productions, I greatly admire their fortitude in exploring this colder, darker ground. Mammoth is an impressive and courageous addition to their body of work.
Mammoth runs through May 23 at The Brick, 579 Metropolitan Ave, Brooklyn NY, 11211, www.bricktheater.com
Written and directed by Adam R. Burnett
Associate Director: Anne Cecelia Haney
Featuring: Starr Busby, Kristine Haruna Lee, Erin Mallon, Michael McKim, and Tina Shepard
Scenic/co-lighting design by Nicholas Kostner; Costume/co-lighting designer by Jennifer Stimple Kamei; Original sound design & music by Casey Mraz; Puppetry design by Mindy Leanse; Stage Management by Daniel Nelson* & Hannah Spratt