The roster of simultaneous performance festivals that regularly occur in January in New York can be overwhelming. I asked a visiting European programmer what she had seen and, though she had attended ten pieces, her eyes revealed an embarrassing total blank, which she could only remedy by referring to her cell phone calendar.
In conjunction with APAP, the membership conference of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, an organization you may not have heard of, but whose members are responsible for the programming at performance spaces across the U.S. and in 30 other countries, New York hosts COIL (sponsored by the currently itinerant PS122), Under the Radar (sponsored by The Public Theater), American Realness (at the Abrons Arts Center), and PROTOTYPE (HERE’s festival of opera-theatre and music-theatre).
Wooster Group alumnus Andrew Schneider’s YOUARENOWHERE, part of COIL and presented at The Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn, stood out for its intelligence and precision. Schneider’s trademark is performance technology, and here he made excellent use of the powers of computer programming to create live theater.
It would be incorrect to refer to a plot; Schneider’s piece is more of a situation, a performer/narrator trapped in a malfunctioning technological environment that ultimately lies beyond the character’s control. These breakdowns are apparently reenactments of errors that occurred during the development of the piece. Schneider’s text delved into the perception of time and didn’t hesitate to invoke Einsteinian physics, or to ramble in a seemingly personal way. The narrative voice appeared to belong to Schneider himself, while also conjuring a similar, but different, fictional person. YOUARENOWHERE employed lots of newfangled technology, such as the control units strapped to Schneider’s biceps, and a heavy dose of old-fashioned theater magic (a big surprise I won’t spoil) to create a memorable, exciting performance.
Another writer/performer, Mike Iveson presented his Sorry Robot at the Ohio Theatre, also as part of COIL. It too dealt with technology gone awry, telling the story of a creeping takeover of the human domain by robots, who are programmed to err and feel, that is to say, to be more human. The style of the piece alternated between mock B-movie spy/sci-fi and a Brechtian dynamic, involving direct address introductions of each scene by Iveson. The latter tactic never settled into something that worked, but the rest often fell beautifully into place. Tanya Selvaratnam lurched from one identity to another as she whirled around the stage, impersonating a number of devious characters seriatim, to hilarious effect. Nicky Paraiso took a while to get warmed up, but once he did, it was divine to watch him camp it up into a fascinating weirdness, especially in his songs. Mind you, this was a musical, with nine songs, performed by actors who can’t really sing. The vocal style was a kind of downtown Sprechstimme, if you will, in which pitch mattered less than whether the singer was deliciously letting his or her freak flag fly. The plot didn’t make sense, and that didn’t matter much either. It was half-baked, and awful, but in a good way.
COIL also brought The Blind Date Project to the Park Side Lounge, a bar on the Lower East Side. The concept of the piece, by Ride On Theatre from Australia, and starring Bojana Novakovic, is long-form improvisation in which Novakovic is the constant, a blind date waiting in a bar for a changing cast of potential mates, one per show. There was a tedious karaoke intro while the crowd settled in and ordered drinks. However bereft the plot premise was, the show was a financial success for the host bar.
Novakovic proved game in playing off her evening’s blind date (Frederick Weller), who was prompted by the director Scott Rodgers through a series of texts and phone calls during the course of the show. Weller’s character had a backstory that included a needy son in the custody of his none-too-cooperative ex-wife, both of whom are never far from the phone. Novakovic’s character sent off the kind of warning flares of deep pathology that would cause a more cautious man to flee the date early on. But Weller stayed with it, stealing the show easily from Novakovic. Who knows what The Blind Date Project is like in other performances, with different actors improvising against Novakovic, but Weller had enough drive by himself to rescue the improv’s weak premise for an hour.
Also in Under the Radar, but rather more in the art performance realm, was A (Radically Condensed and Expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again – After David Foster Wallace. In director Daniel Fish’s choral recitation, four actors were fed lines via earphones, through which played David Foster Wallace reading from his work. The actors took turns relaying Wallace’s words, with varying degrees of success. Perhaps because of the headphones they wore, the actors often failed to gauge how well their voices carried into the audience. The whole production successfully favored the comic form of a sporting event, highly unusual in such a literary theatrical setting; the actors raced to catch up with Wallace’s galloping prose and, presumably, his unstoppable recorded voice. The stage was bare, except for countless tennis balls, which a machine had been launching at the upstage wall while the audience members took their seats. The tennis balls referred to one portion of the text, an extended meditation on the determinedly mediocre and spectacularly uninsightful memoir of a forgettable tennis champion, performed heroically by Therese Plaehn, who managed to calmly recite the text while doing jumping jacks.
Less thrilling were the offerings at American Realness, which tended toward an indulgent understanding of dance as an art form that often doesn’t involve dance but rather badly written text or shoddy theater. A dancer told me recently, “I hate going to see traditional dance,” and it is exciting just how open a form dance can be. Still, I wondered about the rewards of watching dancers do a dull ten-minute theater improv, as occurred in Karen Sherman’s One with Others, which also included a personal monologue on mundane matters, including food preparation. Likewise, Kein Applaus für Scheisse (No Applause for Shit), conceived and performed by Florentina Holzinger and Vincent Riebeek, featured frequent malfunctions (a broken boombox, costume failure, missed entrances) and, frankly, long stretches of boredom. The piece was reportedly a student work that doesn’t represent the quality of their present performance, but that may not excuse them.
Though the promotional blurb touts dialogue with 1970s performance art, the intention appeared mostly to be scandalous, with lots of nudity, Ribeek pissing into Holzinger’s mouth and onto her body, his vomiting on her, and a long scene involving cunnilingus and some stretchy red material. This resulted in one of the best theater failures I have ever witnessed, and one I doubt the duo planned: after Riebeek had been munching away at Holzinger’s vaginal opening for a while, drawing out a red elastic with his teeth, when the time came for Riebeek to bite off the end, the thread would not break. Riebeek applied a knife, fortunately none too close to Holzinger’s genitals, but leaving a long red dangler hanging from her privates.
Later, after considerable suspense, in a fit of frustration, she ripped it out of her vagina. It was live, the most live moment in the piece, which relied on the spontaneous for combustion, but seemed instead to be treading over some long dead ashes. Not so, Ivo Dimchev’s Fest (Festival) which also involved some onstage cunnilingus as well as fellatio though no pissing. The piece maintained a more formal style that matched well the mocking tone of the dialogue, which discussed implausibly intimate demands made upon the female festival director by a sought-after performance artist as his appearance in the performance festival is negotiated. He later fulfills his desire to feast upon the smelly but ultimately irresistible penis of the stage manager for the festival.
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