Leaving Home: Do NYC Critical Standards Negate Generosity?

Photo by James Coote

Upon arriving in a new city, the unknown artist inspects the surroundings and sifts through the various subcommunities in search of one that feels most like “home.”

That which I call home, while complicated by cross-country moves and a misleading birth certificate (it reads, “Iowa”), is still most likely Minnesota, where I lived for the most formative years of my theatrical upbringing. The Minneapolis performance scene is robust, a sort of hybrid that combines Chicago’s store-front theaters with a surprisingly well-developed physical & object theater crowd. New plays are more curiosities than the norm. The majority of the work is company-driven and built smaller-scale. In the absence of the outsized ambitions of becoming a hit or getting picked up for further development, the work settles for simply being seen, and (often) being good.

The Krumple’s energetic and physically based YOKAI: Remedy for Despair, which runs at The Tank’s new theater digs on 36th Street (through September 24; tickets $15-$35), would likely be very much at home in a community such as Minneapolis. In its opening moments, the full company emerges, wearing tight dirt-colored body suits, wide-eyed, fully aware of the audience and painfully cognizant of their task – to set up, say, a small box and suggest to us that this box, with cut-out windows and a small LED light within, is “apartment”. Then, this fluffy thing must be, “cloud”. This work of set-up and identification is done wordlessly, through gesture, physicality, raised eyebrows, etc., and is charming throughout the first half of the piece (somewhat less so after it is repeated a few times – their landscape is a constantly shifting one, and the balance between transition and narrative becomes problematic).

Their aesthetic sensibility certainly feels New York-friendly – the distance they create between their creature-like characters and the small magical world of objects, cars, helicopters, and hot air balloons (to name a few) allows them to present their world to us with a sort of sarcastic gesture (very French – Oh, well, here’s this). Yet, I’m struggling with why this work felt underwhelming upon seeing it in NYC, whereas I strongly suspect I would have been charmed by it and more willing to give it the benefit of the doubt had I have encountered it in a Fringe festival somewhere.

Is there a higher standard with regards to the quality of work, both in vision and execution, in New York City? Is it possible that like-minded performance collectives with ambitions similar to The Krumple – who are an international theater company based in Oslo and Paris with a stated commitment to “creating dynamic, daring physical work through expressive movement” – are most often imported and presented at a high-stakes venue such as BAM (for example), and so we have become numb to and disinterested with the prospect of seeing such work at a more raw stage of development?

If the answer is yes, then why? And is that actually useful to our community? In some ways, it lays bare a double-standard in what feels very much like a New York-based new-play-driven environment. The majority of new-play development in a town packed to the gills with playwrights encourages those writers to position themselves for (possibly imaginary) future grandiosity. A full-scale production. A regional tour. A Broadway show. The resulting work (“in development”) has developed a tendency to indicate rather than execute. How will this play be better when it gets bigger? After all, one doesn’t want the product to feel too complete, lest some producer decide they can’t improve upon it in a future production. At every level, so long as the project can be considered a new play (with the regular assembly of playwright, director, and actors all brought together in a project-based way, as opposed to a company), it will be given a pass based on its potential. Potential, here, meaning that we all implicitly agree that it isn’t good yet, but it might be, later. More often than not, however, the not-greatness of a play in development results in a not-great play in production.

It is interesting, then, to consider YOKAI within the context of a physical theater company making its New York premiere of a new work. The piece is most watchable and highly enjoyable when it accepts its scale and delivers moment after moment of micro-delights (such as branch that begins to grow out of one of the character’s ears, or the reveal of a tiny floating hot air balloon). It’s when the company asks us to imagine the work as being capable of functioning on the grandest of scales that the gap between enjoyment and a straining-to-comprehend sensation opens up and threatens to overwhelm the composition as a whole. Eventually, it feels like they’re practicing their tricks for something bigger down the road.

The viewer, in this circumstance, is given a choice. Will they imagine the stagecraft as this company wants them to see it? Frenetic, beautiful, jaw-dropping, cathartic spectacle (if sometimes only in the mind of the performers, reaching the audience via ambitious transference)? Or under-accomplished, the mark to hit still a ways off, the work falling short of the wonder it reaches for?

Put more succinctly; back in Minneapolis, I would have regarded YOKAI as a finished product – if a bit raw, still capable of delivering itself mostly intact. In New York, I see it (fairly, unfairly?) as something not-yet-finished, incapable of holding together under the weight of heightened expectations. This viewing is made all the more problematic by a systemic lack of institutional development in New York for work that does not identify as playwright-driven, as well as underlines a strange bias in critical analysis that rewards the unfinished play yet punishes any other form that dares to reveal itself mid-evolution.

One conclusion: I was a more generous and less judgemental audience member while in Minneapolis. My viewing filter in NYC is skewed in a way that I’m not sure I like. Watching The Krumple’s work forced me to take note of the gap that has opened up inside of myself. There is beauty here. I should be able to like this.

Perhaps a return to generosity is what we most need, in a city that none of us can really call our own. And on an institutional level, The Tank, with this inaugural production at their new space and with their open-door policy to makers of all disciplines, makes a strong case as a new place to call home.

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