Theo Langason, Derek Meyer, Ryan Hill, and Derek Lee Miller in rehearsal for Beatnik Giselle. Photo courtesy Sandbox Theatre.
There's a lot to admire about Sandbox Theatre's new show Beatnik Giselle. There's some superb dancing, the music is expert, and much of the Beat poetry recited by the characters genuinely comes alive. The show falls victim, though, to a pitfall common to devised theater: though the bodies move, the plot doesn't.
The ensemble-created play is set circa 1950; on stage right, we see Jack Kerouac (Derek Lee Miller), Allen Ginsberg (Ryan Hill), Neal Cassidy (Derek Meyer), and Bob Kaufman (Theo Langason) drinking and discoursing about life, love, and art. On stage left, a dancer named Gigi (Kate Guentzel) leads an ensemble of ballet-company rejects (Katie Bradley, Nicole Devereaux, Erika Hansen, Zainab Musa, and Heather Stone) as they rehearse her new version of the classic ballet Giselle. The two stories unfold in tandem, occasionally intersecting, with the characters of Ginsberg and Gigi discovering—in parallel—that even artistic revolutionaries can't entirely shake restrictive social norms.
Beatnik Giselle has been years in the making, and that time investment shows. The show is an ambitious marriage of movement, music, and text, and nothing feels sloppy or accidental. There's some fine dancing—notably, strong partner work between Hill and Meyer—and the music, performed by a live trio, nicely underscores the action. The show's evocation of the Beat era feels authentic and textured, with Maynard G. Krebs stereotypes firmly banished.
Beneath that well-polished surface, though, is a limp drama and uneven performances. Performances on the women's side are, to a one, histrionic. On the men's side, Meyer is the standout as a preeningly bisexual Cassady; Hill and Langason effectively underplay in contrast, but Miller as Kerouac seems uptight and nervous, hardly the charming rogue the role demands.
Perhaps the most fundamental problem with the show, though, is that as the initially confident characters reveal their vulnerabilities, they tend to reveal themselves as being either (a) unlikable assholes or (b) tortured souls with whom we are made to suffer. By the time the lights came up, I was thinking of a line my aunt sometimes uses in business meetings: "You can visit Pity City, but you can't live there!"
Read Matthew A. Everett's preview of Beatnik Giselle and Jay Gabler's review of Sandbox Theatre's Unspeakable Things (2010).
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