Sunday, January 26, 2014

Niwa Gekidan Penino: The Room Nobody Knows; Wexner Center, 01/23/14

Hang overhead from all  directions
Radiation from the porcelain  light
Blind and blistered by the morning light
I dream a highway back to you
-Gillian Welch, "I Dream a Highway"

Here, the slow dance of contingency
An afternoon connected to an evening
by a slender wish.  Sometimes absence 
makes the heart grow sluggish
and desire only one person, or one thing.
I am closing the curtains.
I am helping the night.
-Stephen Dunn, "The Snowmass Cycle, 4. Delineation at Dusk"

A good friend of mine who I'd lost touch with for the usual reasons of work and distance but who I loved a great deal died this week and that threw my mundane days for a loop.  A few days of just going into work either she loved or I associate with the time we hung out most often - Nick Cave, Firewater, my favorite episodes of The West Wing, all accompanied with jagged shards of memory and oozing abscesses of doubt and disgust and self-loathing.

So in a lot of ways it makes sense that the only new art I experienced in this frozen week was Kuro Tanino's group Niwa Gekidan Penino's theater piece The Room Nobody Knows which the Wexner Center brought to town as part of a tour that started at NYC's Japan Society and includes FringeArts, the Walker, and On The Boards.  Or something I saw or thought I saw in this dovetails with my mental state and what I got out of this was far different than what the creator intended and your mileage may vary even more than usual.  Be warned.

The Room Nobody Knows is a work deeply concerned with dreams, commingled with the guilt that comes from never measuring up to whatever standard is presented to you and the way time wasted just snowballs until the decades are just gone.  A work about the abject horror and sadness of keeping that childlike hope even as it flies in the face of all evidence.  Anyone I know who loves theater should see this immense, physical show.  Anyone I know with a love of heavily psychological art needs to see this.  Anyone I know trying to write fiction or poetry dealing with the fantastic should have been occupying a seat for this.  I hope there was some cross-pollination with the anime and manga convention in town, Ohayocon, but I know in my days of cons I was often the only one who made time to get out and do that kind of thing.

The first half of the piece is occupied by two fantasy creatures, a male (Taeko Seguchi) with what look like ram horns and a female (Momoi Shimada) with elf ears, busying themselves in a set that looks like a '70s apartment.  All decoration is either pottery placed in what looks like cracked patterns or very phallic - the bottom of a table, the chairs, tiny tchotchkes in the windows.  Things are blown on, rubbed/dusted and it's the best use of translating childlike motions into adult bodies I've ever seen on a stage.  There are some easy jokes early on and it doesn't shirk them but that feels like a feint, they're getting the audience onto a level of acceptance.  There's lots of worry about the weather, a storm coming in, made clear through the dark blue and flashes of light in the windows and sound effect, which is also amplified by the exaggerated, small gestures of the "elves".

A couple of scenes in, lights go up below the party being set up.and we see what we realize is the Kenji mentioned in the narration (played by Ikuma Yamada) in an antiseptic room that looks like a surgical operating theater.  Bathed in white light with walls of perfectly square, tiled ceramic, Kenji alternates between working in a homework/pre-test workbook and adding details to four very similar masks.  It's also, very early on, when the audience realizes Kenji's hair is shot through with grey.  This is confirmed when his brother (Ichigo Iida) arrives, home after a long absence. After showing his brother the masks, post-modern takes on the brother's own face, they wrestle in an extremely sexualized way, shirts unbuttoned and legs wrapped around waists and there's a power dynamic established very quickly.  The older brother accepts no questions about where he's been and seems very self-satisfied with his brother always stuck in that stasis, always studying and never applying, never moving forward.

The two sets intersect when Kenji introduces the brother to the dream through a trap door and from that point it's a flurry of images - the male and female dream creatures, playing chess but spending more time setting up the chess board than anything; Kenji wearing one of the masks which is set up to fit over his penis and with eyes going back and forth in the only instance where a character breaks the unseen barrier of the set, legs dangling over into "reality" off the front of the stage.

The set, by Michiko Inada, and the lighting by Masayuki Abe, are given heavier prominence than in a typical proscenium play.  The sets are both clear in their distinct feels but also are set up so no actor can ever stand fully upright.  The psychological effect of always seeing actors in this contorted supplication adds to the empathy and also, at least for me, always kept the audience on edge.  There's an expectation of rebellion, of change, but all we get is dissolution.

A lot of the material, the heavily Freudian father/penis symbolism, I have a tendency to read as corny.  But the production is so physical and the dream elements are so heavy that within 10 minutes that all fell away.  And that's a testament to all the actors but especially to Tanino's directing of his own script.  This put me in another world in ways that only theater does and did it as well as I've ever seen it.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Thoughts on Available Light Theater's Next Stage Initiative - Weekend 1

Available Light, for which I have an undisguised affinity, has undertaken a project to stage brand new work - in various stages of readiness and experience, in readings or workshop stagings, each piece one show only: Next Stage Initiative.  This weekend I went to all three productions (next weekend with scheduling I can only make two of the three).  It's predictably uneven but it's also, perhaps just as predictably, one of the most inspiring and invigorating things I've seen in a while.

Two of the pieces were brand new - Matt Slaybaugh's Leaving the Atocha Station and Camille Bullock's Southern Cross the Dog - and so what I say about them will be a little vaguer and avoid judgments because I want to respect where they are in the process.  Mickle Maher's There is a Happiness that Morning Is has already been produced by his company, Theatre Oobleck, in Chicago and is pretty well frozen so there'll be a little more detail there.

Leaving the Atocha Station is based on a novel by Ben Lerner that I haven't read, and honestly avoided reading before this because I wanted to experience the play as a defined, stand-alone thing.  It's an extremely complex, ambitious work about the inner life and connecting with yourself and others with some astonishing language, including some really poetic, rhythmic stage direction that I'm fascinated to see translated to a stage.  Available Light is doing a full production at the end of the current season (I think in June) and if it's half as good as I think it's going to be from this early version it'll be another home run and help cement Slaybaugh as one of the finest adapters of complicated novels for the stage.  And while it was made clear that the actors in this were not committed to the final production, they were all perfectly chosen, especially David Tull and Eleni Papaleonardos.

Camille Bullock's Southern Cross  the Dog was based on Bullock's time with Teach for America and focuses on three just-out-of grad school teachers and three young children from the same family dealing with the death of the family's father.  At this stage, there's a lot of work to be done but the language is already gorgeous and there's a grasp of image I really hope Bullock explores and goes deeper into because there were a few astonishing, moving moments including a framing sequence built around Jimmy Ruffin's classic song "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted".  And the acting was phenomenal - particular credit to Cameron Williamson as all of the external authority figures, making each of them distinct people even with limited stage time and all three of the children but especially Janice Robinson.

A. and I saw Maher's An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on His Final Evening in Chicago at Oobleck on a phenomenal trip including the wedding of one of my dearest friends and the last show I ever saw from guitarist Jack Rose and were both blown away. We missed There is a Happiness that Morning Is (but no complaints because that trip we saw McCraney's Head of Passes) so I was very, very excited AVLT staged this as part of Next Stage.

Matt Slaybaugh and Eleni Papaleonardos read as two professors, Ellen and Bernard, who both lecture on William Blake at a declining Antioch-style college and find themselves in the position of having to apologize for having sex the previous night in full view of the campus body and the enraged president of the university.  In rhymed verse this was an hour and a half of the kind of theater that makes me want to throw up the devil horns and skip all the way home.  It brilliantly delineated these two people, where they are now, the arc of their relationship and worked in real insight about Blake and the declining state of education.

Slaybaugh's experience as a performing poet served him a little better here, he was astonishing here, burying the rhymes where he needed to and finding a very conversational rhythm to fill with that exquisite balance of heightened and coarse language.  Papaleonardos landed hard on the rhyme a little more often but summed up the gravitas and fury of her character in a way that would be hard to better.  Following the trend of the Chicago press and the introductory remarks at the theater that night, I won't reveal what character mark Evans Bryan played but he was perfect and hilarious.  I really hope this play has an extra life in Columbus where I can drag some people out to see it - this could be a real crowd-pleaser.

Next Stage Initiative runs through January 18th at Studio Two Theater in the Riffe Center.  Information:

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Mark Flugge Quartet; Natalie's Coal-Fired Pizza and Live Music, January 8, 2014

I’ve got friends who are always on the trail of the new and I’ve been accused of it myself but sometimes I get an itch that’ll only be scratched by a shot of cortisone.  Wait, that’s not right.  Classicism.  A shot of classicism.  And I scratched that itch pretty successfully on Wednesday January 8 at Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza seeing Mark Flugge’s Quartet do two sets of Thelonious Monk tunes (and one original very heavily inspired by Monk).

Monk might be my favorite short-form composer ever and Flugge’s time in academia as well as paying his dues playing to a handful of people in every conceivable context (along with some huge festival gigs) made him probably the perfect keys player in town to tackle a whole Monk night.  And he assembled a crack quartet of Dave DeWitt on bass, Aaron Scott on drums, and Randy Mather on tenor. 
Everything was played in the spirit of the original. It’s never an easy task to get out of your own way and channel the composer’s intent but they did it again and again.  The second tune, “Pannonica”, was the most gorgeous I’ve ever heard it played live – a ballad about beauty flowering into knives.  A Burroughsian cutup of every love song half-remembered from your past, sly quoting given the full weight of finding an old piece of clothing that still smells like that person you tried to put out of your mind and with the suspense of a lump in your throat and your blood gone cold.  All given the appropriate weight and lightness, Flugge’s spiky piano and DeWitt’s shadow melody limned by Scott’s cymbal work, the moment when Mather’s molten saxophone rises out of the mist is the reason I go out on a weeknight. 
The other ballad, “Ask Me Now”, was given a similarly lush reading, letting the rhythm section stretch and breathe and some of Mather’s finest melodic invention.  But the band seemed most engaged and together on the more uptempo numbers.  “Little Rootie Tootie” had a momentum not unlike R&B shouters of the era of its composition, Louis Jordan and Wynonie Harris, even echoing back to Fats Waller and James P Johnson on a righteous solo by Flugge; all the bounding joy and chaos of a child showed up here, appropriately for a piece dedicated to Monk’s son.  “Rhythm-a-ning” was played with an uncanny fire, particularly from Scott and Flugge trading choruses, finding some new slivers of light in the cracking standard.  But for the faster tunes, my favorite was the rarity “Work” played as a trio like Monk recorded it, and the shadows of the original rhythm section Percy Heath and Art Blakey (has there ever been a better bass and drum duo behind a piano?) lit a fire under all three, as close as this show got to ecstatic abandon.  

Summing up, a damn fine night that cleared my head and has me ready and excited for whatever show I see next.  Setting the tone for another good year of live music.  And I know I’ve said it before but Natalie’s might be the perfect venue for any show with a listening room vibe.  They’ve taken the City Winery model and infused it with a dose of Midwestern aw-shucks charm, good cocktails and beer, and damn fine food and made a place any musician I’ve talked to loves to play and cultivated a healthy audience excited to go there.  As evidenced by a sold out jazz show on a Wednesday night.