Sunday, October 08, 2006

Everything old is new again is old again

Let's take two completely different offerings: Jay Johnson's The Two and Only on Broadway and Mikel Rouse's The End of Cinematics at BAM. I went to the former expecting little—after all, this was a one-man show by a ventriloquist whose main claim to fame was a recurring gig on the 1970s series Soap; yet I came out not only charmed, but musing about the evolution of popular entertainment, dichotomic acts, acting with voice vs. body. I went to the latter expecting to my brain cells to be activated, my sensory nerves to be tickled; I exited in a semi-catatonic state.

Anybody who's seen a Shakespeare in the Park show at the Delacorte has been subjected to a high-tech form of ventriloquism—the miking is so intense that there's no correlation between the actors' voices and their lips; actors throw their voices whether they want it or not. Jay Johnson does it the old-fashioned way: by projecting his voice onto a puppet (or a tennis ball, or whatever's handy—but usually a puppet) clinging to his arm and by establishing a straight man/demented accomplice act. Think of it as Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin's cabaret routines done by one person. That reference also alludes to these antics' antique style: The Two and Only is a trip back to a long-gone time of radio dramas, Catskills entertainment and variety-show acts. But Johnson pulls it off because in addition to the technical skills that allow him to create genuinely funny routines, he weaves in and out of a narrative touching upon the notion of old-school mentorship and the melancholy inherent in specializing in an art that not only is considered dorky but is pretty much on the verge of extinction.

Composer-director Mikel Rouse has said in an interview with my colleague Steve Smith (referring to the old Cage/Cunningham collaborations and how you could approach his own show in the same manner): "you’ve got permission to check in and check out." Fine, but Rouse's own M.O. prevents that: There's too much going on onstage—a beautiful bilevel stage, projections of images both prerecorded and filmed live, actors-singers interacting with each other and their preshot avatars—and yet none of it is particularly compelling. Why mention in the program notes Susan Sontag's article about the death of traditional cinephilia and call your show The End of Cinematics if half of it relies on purely cinematic tropes? By starting the evening with trailers of upcoming Hollywood productions (Spiderman 3, a CGI version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), are you implying that your own show isn't that different in that it's a hollow head trip defined by the technology that allows it?

The first two songs lured me in because I thought that finally a contemporary composer had successfully reached out to the world of pop electronics, but Rouse's inspiration frittered away quickly—all the songs sounded the same and the lack of dynamics was maddening (but then, dynamics would have prevented the kind of daydreaming Rouse claims he was after). Mostly the show reminded me of a jumbled mix of 1960s hippie happening, late ’80s/early’90s rave culture, Wired's wide-eyed love for gadgetry and Laurie Anderson's early work: There was nothing in The End of Cinematics that wasn't in her 23-year-old magnum opus, United States I–IV (created at BAM).

On a more general note, the show fits perfectly into BAM's current programming, which—as my friend Christian (a subscriber who walked out of The End of Cinematics) astutely pointed out—seems to increasingly fall into basic categories: American tech-heavy spectacles (Mikel Rouse, the Builders' Association), European dance-theater (Pina Bausch, Sacha Waltz), versions of classic works by international companies (Macbeth in Japanese, Hedda Gabler in German, Maria Stuart in Swedish, etc.) and neo-trad pieces (the theatrical equivalent to world music). Of course enough of the shows are good, or at least interestingly flawed, that BAM remains an indispensable institution on the NY scene. How else would we have seen Ingmar Bergman's stage work? Who else is bringing over Germany's Thomas Ostermeier, whose Nora (A Doll's House) two years ago was a great example of a flawed but mesmerizing production? Perhaps I'm harsh on BAM because I've been spoiled and now I expect too much from it.


David Cote said...

I was kicking myself for missing End of Cinematics, but now I'm kicking more lightly. Even though it's true that BAM brings some rare European work to these shores that we'd never see otherwise, I think they need to be kept honest just like any organization. Plus, Jed Wheeler is giving them a slight run for their money (on a much smaller scale) over in Montclair. Closer to home as you know, Vallejo Gantner is trying to make PS 122 more international, and the new head of Soho Rep, Sarah Benson, has expressed similar goals. BAM is great, but it shouldn't have a monopoly on the international avant-garde.

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

Very true, and let's not forget NY Theater Workshop's continued collaboration with Ivo van Hove. The Kasser in Montclair is programming daring stuff—those upcoming Jan Fabre shows certainly aren't "easy." BAM and the Lincoln Center Festival do contribute the ability to bring over large-scale works, but the ambition should include messing with the audience, not just showing big stuff.

Anonymous said...

It's good to see more people seeing through the con of M. Rouse's work: there's nothing there.

Anonymous said...

"Con?" Well, that's not fair.
If you start with the music, there is something there...textured, layered vocals, interesting and quizzical lyrics, pop-rock beats, choral sections, rapping. Looking at the live video/film component - uniquely mesmerizing - floating dramatic scenes, as if out of a painting. I agree with the "Warholian" description of this work in particular. Non-linear story, well that theatrical construct goes back many decades. I do agree with you that you can't really tune out of this piece,as Mikel Rouse says you have the permission to do. There is too much stuff happening. I thinks it's a definite worthwhile evening in the theater.