Monday, September 7, 2009

Philadelphia Live Arts: Days 2 and 3

By the time we got back to our room Saturday night, It was too late and the end of too long a day to post so this will be a longer than usual post. That, or my reviews of the shows will be shorter: I haven’t decided yet…

Day 2
We actually began our day, at the strenuous suggestion of our friend Wayne-O, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art to see the exhibit on the construction of Marcel Duchamp’s final work, Étant Donnés.* Catherine and I had been to the museum about 10 years ago and had seen the installation then; while I still remembered it pretty vividly, I didn’t know any of the story behind the piece. The exhibit, which includes many of the materials and documents that Duchamp used to create the work over about 20 years, as well as the manual he left behind after his death with instructions for how to reassemble the installation, give an incredible insight into the creative process of an amazing artist. Unfortunately, we had less than an hour in all at the museum—time to see the exhibit but not enough to cast more than a glance at some of the great artworks in their collection as we sped past.

Our first performance on Saturday, Urban Scuba, is a fantastic dance piece performed in an abandoned swimming pool at the Gershman Y. The risers for the audience seating have been built in the shallow end of the (mostly empty) pool so that the performance can take place in the deep part. Brian Sanders’s choreography is muscular and athletic, employs quite a bit of wire and bungee work, and has a vocabulary that I found to be whimsical in some movements and extremely visceral in others. He’s accompanied here by three very skilled and very brave dancers: not only do they leap over and into the abyss many times but they dive with seeming abandon into waters that can best be described as murky. Each new dance in the piece offers the audience a fresh discovery in the architecture of the space and another exploration of the relationship of human beings to water—at one point even taking us back to our exit from the primordial ooze. It’s an exceptional work and one of the highlights of this year’s festival.

SCRAP Performance Group’s TIDE, by contrast, has problems. It’s a shame, too, because the opening moment, in which the sea goddess-mother nurses and then murders her human offspring is stunning; after that, those moments of divine inspiration appear only haphazardly and fleetingly. It’s not that the creators, Myra Bazell and Madison Cario, suffer from a lack of ideas but that they had far too many: the themes are unfocused, the text is generic and the movement vocabulary feels like well-considered phrases that never manage to connect to a larger whole. The performers all move well but they’re not strong actors and are often difficult to hear. The large expanse of the Ice Box just seems to swallow the piece and the design choice of making the stage as absolutely white as possible—to the point of creating white boxes to cover the floor-mounted lighting instruments—only emphasizes how little of the space is used. Artistically, the stronger moments in the piece point to great potential; a little more clarity in the artists' thinking might have yielded some impressive results.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from daDAda: it’s an artistic movement that we’ve researched pretty thoroughly and I was curious to see how other artists would interpret it for a modern audience. For Anthology Project, it’s a joyous and slightly silly movement that seeks to spread the gospel of randomness and absurdity; it’s certainly not the confrontational, anti-art movement of many of its original practitioners. That’s not to say that I think what Thomas Choinacky and Chrissie Harms are doing isn’t dada—dada was truly different in every city, at various times and for every group of artists; why couldn’t the 21st century Philly version be a child-like game? I might wish the duo had spent a little more time planning some of the elements and that there’d been a little more literary heft to their texts… but, gosh, they’re both so cute and they did a great job of getting the audience involved! This is a mere trifle but it’s a fun 40 minutes of play time: not a bad way to spend the gap between weightier fare.

What happened in New Paradise LaboratoriesFATEBOOK: Avoiding Catastrophe One Party at a Time? Were we solving a mystery? Were we participating in a commentary on life in the age of “social networking?” Were we players in some sort of interactive game? What’s great about this performed installation is that the answer to what happened is probably different for every single person in the room, in spite of the numerous repetitions of the brief stories in the piece. Anyway, if you spend too much time trying to “figure it all out,” you’ll miss out on the experience, which is quite engaging and smart. The planning of all the many videos is exceptional and the use of dozens of screens to sculpt the environment into a maze of rooms is well-executed—there were quite a few times when I could glean several bits of information in a couple of different story lines by standing in one place. I haven’t spent any time on their show website yet (although I’ve received many entreaties to do so on Facebook over the past few weeks), but I understand it enhances the experience in some way… not that I think it’s really necessary: I personally liked the one I had Saturday night just fine.

Day 3
Before this weekend, I could probably have counted on one hand—perhaps even on one finger—the number of times a show has ended and I’ve thought to myself, “It’s over? I’m not ready for it to be over yet!” I can add another finger now because that’s exactly how I felt during the curtain call for STORE: Kate Watson-Wallace absolutely followed the showbiz adage to always leave 'em wanting more. Installed in an abandoned pharmacy, it’s so simple a production as to be almost old fashioned from a design standpoint, with video shown on a dozen or so television monitors, a stage in the center of the room strewn with old clothes and lighting done almost entirely with cliplights (there were four ceiling-mounted video projectors, too, but they were used pretty sparingly). As a commentary on our societal addiction to consumption and how we measure the worth of things, it’s unsubtle; fortunately, Watson-Wallace's strong choreography and the joyful and energetic performances by the very talented dancers more than compensate. I especially enjoyed a sort of duet in which a young woman delighted as another dancer dressed her in layer after layer of clothing until she resembled the hapless Randy in the movie, A Christmas Story. STORE is, hands down, my favorite of the pieces we saw in the festival.

There's not much that I can say about Mike Daisey's How Theater Failed America that hasn't been said already, and much better, by reviewers and bloggers around the country. I expected it to be thought- and discussion-provoking, and it was; Catherine and I were still talking about it on the train home last night. I expected it to be funny and it was very much so. What I didn't expect was for it to be so literate: Daisey doesn't just tell a good story, he writes a good story that still feels conversational; in listening to him, I was impressed by how clearly-stated his talking points are laid out, and yet the monologue never feels like someone is reading me an essay. I thought it might be more confrontational—the title would certainly suggest more of a diatribe than a reasoned observation, but it's definitely the latter (I'd never considered the notion that, according to the process we all follow as theater artists, you can fully realize any play ever written in just three and a half weeks of rehearsal!). But the biggest thing I took away from the performance is how inspirational it is to spend time with someone who truly loves the theater, as Daisey makes very clear: it's only that person or thing that we respect the most that can disappoint us this dramatically.

Our last event of the weekend was Steve Cuiffo's Digital Effects at the Painted Bride. It was presented as part of Lucidity Suitcase International's Off the Grid festival which is powered entirely be renewable energy: the electricity for the (rather dim) lighting came from solar panels on the roof and Cuiffo powered the sound with a foot pump generator. The real digital effects in the piece were performed by Cuiffo's fingers: a series of amazing card tricks that he warned us at the very beginning of the evening would all be familiar to us. True, but it's alway impressive and entertaining to see them executed by a master—even when you sort of know how it's being done, you can't but help wonder, "How'd he do that?"

*The complete title is actually Étant donnés: 1. La chute d’eau, 2. Le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas).

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