RHINBECCA, NY at The Brick: Windmills of Logic

Emily Marro, Harlan Alford, Sam Corbin, Anastasia Olowin, Jon Riddleberger, Nathaniel Basch-Gould, Lauren Swan-Potras. Photo by Suzi Sadler

Emily Marro, Harlan Alford, Sam Corbin, Anastasia Olowin, Jon Riddleberger, Nathaniel Basch-Gould, Lauren Swan-Potras. Photo by Suzi Sadler

I had no idea what I was in for when I took my seat at Rhinbecca, NY last Friday night at The Brick, and to be honest, I still couldn’t tell you what exactly I am now out of. But thanks to Theater Reconstruction Ensemble’s welcoming embrace of its audience members, I was more than willing to suspend not just my disbelief, but my reality, and enter into the wacky world the ensemble created. I was enthralled from the curtain speech, delivered by Emily Marro, who took literalism to a whole new level in her hilarious explanations of the regular pre-show checklist (how to escape a fire, why you should actually turn off your cell phone, etc.).

In a brilliant fusion of Hitchcock and Ionesco, Rhinbecca, NY was both very dramatic and very confusing. The windmills of logic turned on all levels, from juxtaposing styles of speech, to varying tempo and patterns of movement, to upending notions of linear narrative. The value of the text was measured more in cadence than sense, quickly calling to mind the devolution of the dinner party in Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano. Director John Kurynowski, who also conceived the show, wrote in his program note that he wanted “to create a show that could walk the very fine line between suspense and the absurd.” In a you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it kind of way, Rhinbecca, NY is a magnificent tightrope walk between the two.

The show’s title, with its audible similarity to Rhinebeck, New York (just north of Poughkeepsie), inevitably evokes a sleepy upstate quaintness, of apple orchards and houses on hills. As a mash-up version of Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, it draws personality from both stories, although Rhinbecca’s plot does not resemble either, but is rather, as Kurynowski notes “a study of [Hitchcock & Ionesco’s] respective motifs and genres.”

The physical presence of the actors, both individually and as an ensemble, was by far the most impressive element of the show. From the small details, such as situating the board op center stage and occasionally involving her in the action of the show, to the large choreographed numbers, this group knows how to move together, and how to physically connect their audience to the waylaid story they are telling.

When we are introduced to the town, for example, all the ensemble members stand in a posed huddle and spout a tourism agency spiel to Don, the new arrival, and arguably, our lost protagonist. They are constantly interrupted by Lauren Swan-Potras’ character, who interjects, then changes her mind, in a sort of call-and-response, creating a tug of war between the fictional version of the town and the reality of its inhabitants.

Another brilliant ensemble moment was a full-company lip-synched rendition of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” executed with perfect synchronization and the cinematic focus of a spotlight on poor Don, who was so confused and made so uncomfortable by their performance. I loved how he started clapping during a musical interlude in the song, in hopes it would put an end to the unpleasant experience, to no avail. (At the extremely ambiguous end of the show, as proof of the ensemble’s success in wooing their audience with their strange tale, no one started clapping until the company began bowing, as we were not eager to dismiss this mysterious reality, and still willing to play along with whatever trick came next.)

Don, played by Nathaniel Basch-Gould, has a sort of fever dream experience throughout the piece, and again, his physicality is to be praised, particularly in moments where he throws himself to the ground and writhes as if he is being tormented. My favorite line was his desperate proclamation, in the face of increasingly heightened interrogation by Swan-Potras’ character, “I don’t want to feel that!” (This line appears to be a neat nod to Marro’s plea to audience members in her curtain speech, not to leave the room due to experiencing too many feelings, which does not qualify as an emergency, by her estimation.) For Rhinbecca’s want of traditional narrative, this piece certainly rouses its fair share of feelings, through its physicality and absurdity, and audience members could empathize with Don’s disoriented discomfort.

Although it certainly fit into establishing a distrust of any rule or pattern within the world of the play, in the absurdist tradition, I am not sure how I felt about the moments where the ensemble broke from their storytelling and allowed real life to intervene, hearing someone calling cues over the God Mic or resetting for top of show. The technical work, however, was commendable, with some truly stunning moments captured by a combination of lighting and heavy smoke machine deployment.

There were numerous accents employed throughout the show, with enough irregularity to persuade the audience not to affix any meaning to them. However, the German accent seemed to appear more frequently than most, which made me wonder if we were supposed to draw a parallel between this lost, tormented, self-romanticized town and mythology of Holocaust Germany, or perhaps contemporary Russia, where the people of the nation are obliged to speak well of their leader, and preserve his reputation, no matter what their personal opinions may be. Although Rebecca was produced during World War II, Ionesco didn’t produce his first play until 1950, so my inference is more of a hypothesis than a direct link to the company’s sources of inspiration. Hazarding a guess as to why the company chose to create this particular piece now, however, it seems plausible that examining the layman’s relationship to political powers out of his/her control is a potent topical issue to broach, even in such a subtle way.

All told, Rhinbecca, NY is a sound introduction to Theater Reconstruction Ensemble’s work. Catch the last performances through March 19 at The Brick in Williamsburg.

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