Tony Kushner didn’t bother to revoke the Daily Planet’s press invite when he un-invited the New York Times from The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, claiming that it was still a work in progress, so I suppose I should have been flattered when the Red Eye Theater staff had second thoughts about my request to review the 2010 lineup of works in progress that kicked off the company’s annual New Works 4 Weeks festival.
Critics normally aren’t invited to review the works in progress, I was told, because the work “isn’t ready to receive criticism.” Out of courtesy to the company and the artists, I agreed that I would “write a report that’s not a critical review.” Having seen the performances, though, I’m pained by the fact that I’ve agreed not to write anything critical about this strong and promising work that, far more than completed pieces, begs a meaningful response. (If only I’d been asked not to criticize, say, The Wizard of Oz.)
So what to do? My first thought was to privately write a conventional review, then for public view redact the critical language—but though the idea of the resulting Mad Lib was amusing (“This piece is extremely ______ and should unquestionably be _____ as soon as possible”), I realized that would probably annoy the hell out of everyone involved. So I’ve decided to proceed with a review written and presented with the caveat that these are works in progress and, I know (and so should you), were not intended to be approached or reviewed as though they were finished pieces.
That elaborate disclaimer makes the lineup of five short pieces sound more rudimentary than it actually was (the brief run closes today)—though they were works in progress, this was by no means amateur hour. Some of the area’s top talents were involved in this project, and the five pieces left a powerful impression.
First up was an excerpt from Down: A Fable, written by Kevin Anthony Kautzman. In the excerpt, a college senior (Joanna Harmon) struggles with a tortuous insomnia personified by a wickedly erudite and (literally) horny Stephen Pearce with help from four equally (but, in this case, figuratively) horny hench-creatures of the night. I last saw Harmon in American Sexy, and here again she gave a completely riveting performance as a totally obnoxious character. She writhed about in her hide-a-bed like a little kid, whining at Pearce as though he were an overstrict daddy instead of a deathless blot of anthropomorphized angst—which made the abrupt and shocking turn the excerpt takes at its conclusion all the more effective. Though the spine-tinglingly nightmarish atmosphere (underlined by Amanda McGee’s creepy costumes and Shawn L. Phillips’s rumbling sound design) did more for me than the substance of the dialogue, I’ll be first in line if and when presented with an opportunity to see Harmon and Pearce spar at greater length.
Next was a selection from The Keys Experiment, written and performed by Sheila Regan. Sheila is a friend of mine and I’ve enjoyed seeing her perform in supporting roles in various productions, but it was new for me to see her in an ambitious original solo piece like this, and it was remarkable to watch her shift fluidly among the various characters in this true story of a starvation study conducted on conscientious objectors at the University of Minnesota during World War II. The sparse set and lighting, as well as Dixie Triechel’s sound design, worked to great effect. It’s clear that when completed, this will be a compelling rendition of a disturbing tale—what will be most interesting to me will be to see what themes emerge in the full-length production, and where Sheila finds contemporary resonance in these 70-year-old events.
The third piece, Awaken Absurdity, was the second piece I’ve seen created by dancer/choreographer/musician Taja Will—the first was a site-specific performance in a (by design) crowded apartment—and I understand why she’s been lauded as one of the most restless and promising talents in the sterling local dance scene. She explores human connection in a way that feels genuine and (this is a compliment) dangerous rather than tame and staged; when her performers touch each other or take off their clothes, it feels electric instead of dryly symbolic. (In some productions, you can practically see the title cards: “Movement Six: The Breasts Emerge, Most Obviously Representing the Physical Act of Love But Additionally Meant to Evoke Maternal Care and Emotional Vulnerability.”) In Awaken Absurdity, Will stands in a prepared (that is to say, upended) piano, the strings of which she plays quasi-tonally as she directs her “collaborative ensemble” of six dancers—who also sing nonsense phrases and fragments of nursery rhymes. Prepared pianos have been favorite instruments of avant-garde composers like John Cage and George Crumb, and in Awaken Absurdity the dancers’ striking, jigsaw movements are a perfect match for the alternately touching and eerie soundscape. Awaken Absurdity was presented as a work in progress, but it felt like a complete and coherent vision.
Will was presented with a 2010 Keeper Award by METRO Magazine, and they’d better hurry up and give one to young actress Piper Sigel-Bruse before she goes off to college and doesn’t come back. Sigel-Bruse, who’s worked extensively with Jon Ferguson, has a compelling and endearingly genuine stage presence that worked strongly in favor of the excerpt from Jessica Haung’s A Butterfly Net, directed by Jessica Finney. Sigel-Bruse plays Penelope, a winged creature kept in captivity by the elderly, blind, and gnarled Albert (George Muellner) with the collusion of young Abner (Henry Bushnell). Penelope sees beyond sight, and those who touch her can have visions of things that have been—in Albert’s case, his beloved late Rachael (Heidi Berg). Muellner was convincingly frightening, and Bushnell just as convincingly hurt and confused, in the excerpt, which served as a sizzling teaser for the hopefully forthcoming completed piece. The excerpt presents several layers of metaphor and meaning, and I’m excited to see what emerges when they’re fully excavated.
After those harrowing visions, the Saturday night audience reacted with audible relief to Laura Holway’s gentle and charming I Like You, a mixed-media piece featuring four people (Drew Hammond, Lindsay Marcy, Maggie Smith, and my friend Peter Hogan) who Holway explains in the program notes were strangers as recently as January, and have been getting to know one another as the piece—which is about them—came together, with Ben McGinley manning a video camera throughout the process. I Like You exists at the boundary of personal contact and theatrical performance, territory that has recently been explored by Live Action Set in The Happy Show and by Samantha Johns and George McConnell in The Thing. The Thing worked spectacularly well, in part because it was presented in a manner disorientingly different from conventional theater. The challenge for Holway and her collaborators as they develop I Like You will be to reconcile the intimacy and spontaneity of the performers’ personal revelations with the staged choreography of a theatrical production. Hammond, for example, admits that—though “I’m not proud of it”—he’s good at “talking my way into people’s pants.” Wouldn’t you like to see him try?