Friday, March 30, 2007

Climbing the fourth wall

Coincidentally, I've just seen back-to-back two shows that look at what being a performer entails. Never mind that one is a decidedly mainstream Broadway musical and the other is staged by a British experimental company at PS 122—both, in their own ways, look at what it means when the world is a stage, and the stage is your world.

Kander & Ebb's latest (and last), Curtains, is getting a bit of a rough deal from the press. Are my expectations simply lower when it comes to Broadway musicals, so that I'd find that tuner so satisfying? Granted it's creaky around the edges: The jokes are draped in showbiz cobwebs and you have a much higher chance of having a good time if B fare such as the Destry Rides Again musical holds a special place in your heart. I wouldn't be surprised if the same people who enjoy Curtains also had a pretty nifty time at Martin Short's Fame Becomes Me. (As an aside, it probably says something depressing about the audience's knowledge of world theater that the lyric "Don't bother me with Molière/Those Russians never pay," sung by a bottom-line-oriented producer, didn't get a laugh.)

But aside from the endless plot resolution at the end, I thought Curtains moved at a good clip and featured enough instances of old-school all singing/all dancing excitment to qualify as a minor (very minor) success. Two numbers, in particular, come to mind. Debra Monk is superb throughout and explodes with big-broad energy in her second-act showpiece, "It's a Business." But the most interesting number is "A Tough Act to Follow," in which David Hyde Pierce's police inspector obsessed with musicals crosses the invisible line between the drab world of the audience and the glittering one of the theatah. Pierce doesn't dance very well and he's only an adequate singer, but that's okay because his character is an amateur in the purest sense of the term. The number really captures an everyman's overwhelmed excitment at being annointed as one of the show people, and also works as a literal illustration of the transference process that happens when a stage production hits a right note.

Doublethink, a piece by the English company Rotozaza at PS 122, comes at the issue of performing from a decidedly more aggro perspective, casting a keen eye on issues of power and control. In Doublethink, two local volunteers agree to follow all the directions given them by Rotozaza's Silvia Mercuriali and Neil Bennun, who first sit at a table, then get onstage, manhandling—and getting manhandled by—the two guinea pigs. The first clever trick is that the stage is divided in two halves by a white curtain so each guest performer cannot see what the other is doing. The second one is that while the audience hears the directions at first, so we can see how well the guests execute them, we stop being privy to that information as the piece goes on—the directions get whispered in someone's ear, or they are silently read on pieces of paper that then get discarded. Despite a dip in tension at the two-thirds mark, the show—which starts in a mood of surreal humor—ends with a startling release of pent-up aggression. Our guests, who included Neal Medlyn, looked shaken and stirred.

You only have until Sunday to catch Doublethink—and Ann Liv Young is scheduled to participate! After that, Rotozaza will stage Five in the Morning, which presents a similar concept in a water park. Score another one for PS's artistic director, Vallejo Gantner.

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