Everything avant-garde has become old again


If you ask experimental theater about its intentions, you will generally hear about revolution or radicalism, something explosive. Even the term “avant-garde” is recovered on the battlefield: when one fights against realism, the pieces are supposed to resist Where challenge Where transgress. But look. Everyone is tired. Everything, including the revolution, can be reused as comfort right now. Nostalgia isn’t just for conservatives – these are the days of the backward, the experimental hygge, the comfy avant-garde.

At least we were this week. New York’s experimental scene found itself looking backwards for inspiration, finding solace in ancient movements, including gestures from childhood. In one corner (HERE Arts Center), Julia Jarcho’s company was performing ‘Marie It’s Time’, her dreamy response to Georg Büchner’s 19th century play ‘Woyzeck’. In another, a trio of small companies performed “My Onliness”, a playful adaptation of the text by a Pole, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, which changed theater a hundred years ago. The other shows I saw were looking back to the playroom – in two days I saw both a dance piece (John Jasperse’s strange “Visitation”) and a multimedia event ( Phil Soltanoff and Steven Wendt’s “This and That”) involving shadow puppets – the kind you do with a sheet and a flashlight.

“This and That” abounds in pure forms manipulated and juxtaposed.Photo courtesy of Maya Sharpe

I had the most fun with the crazy-eyed “My Onliness,” perhaps because I spent half the show with a human-sized doll in my lap. The padded cloth figure was used as an effigy by a mathematician-sorcerer trying to challenge a mad king; when she threw the floppy dummy in the front row, her human counterpart also threw himself helplessly into our lap. Eventually the persecuted monarch panicked and hid the doll with me for safe keeping, and I watched the rest of the show sharing my chair with a body pillow in a wreath.

What, was I going to refuse? No one could resist such a king, especially since he is embodied by the Rabelaisian director Daniel Irizarry, a theatrical creature frolicking with an appetite for the height of a goat. His titular Onliness is always bouncing on his “throne,” a gold-stuffed chair raised five feet off the ground, bouncing off the walls, dragging a character backstage or coaxing an audience member into doing the torture for him. . The last time I saw Irizarry on stage was in 2014, and he played the excitable and deranged professor in an Ionesco comedy; the time before, he was screaming like Ubu, Alfred Jarry’s coprophagous looney-tune usurper. In recent years he directed his One-Hightth Theater to the Polish writer and painter Witkiewicz (alias Witkacy), whose spooky cabarets of the 1910s and 1920s anticipated by decades both the Theater of the Absurd and 1960s psychedelia.

In “My Onliness,” a collaboration between One-Eighth, IRT Theater and the New Ohio Theater, playwright Robert Lyons pays homage to a 1921 Witkacy text, “Gyubal Wahazar.” He cut it down considerably both in cast list and scope, turning it into an anti-authoritarian libretto with music by Kamala Sankaram. On the one hand, it’s a hallucinatory nursery rhyme for adults, a barrage of surreal sights and sounds. A man stands in a bathtub with the word “WRITERscribbled on her stomach as she sang, “The new truth serum is completely worthless. Later, when this writer (Rhys Tivey) crumbles over state violence, a six-foot-tall lobster wipes his brow with tender claws. Yet there is a matrix in the chaos: the absurd king apes true authority – he wears elaborate magenta insignia with a sash and martial red mustache – and Morbidita (Cynthia LaCruz), his adversary and subject, must approach him. with a petition, carried high above his head in a garbage bag. Everyone can see that the king is crazy. Surely someone could do something, but we’re all too busy laughing and injecting (they’re giving us injections!) to take responsibility.

“Aha,” I hear you shout, “a tyrant, both insinuating and childish? I bet that’s a metaphor! But the moment you encase His Onliness in a recognizable symbolic package, the show pushes him away again. There is certainly a scent of junta on his last legs in the air, but Irizarry’s long dedication to this kind of hyperphysical work has more to do with his energetic vibrations and the contagious freedom conferred by his various Monster Heroes – His Onliness is a gonzo cousin of the Professor and Ubu. There’s no time for political satire details: the show’s drama is just a long one. yesiiiiii from its rollercoaster start to its sudden, lyrical end.

Witkacy’s original (subtitled “A Non-Euclidean Drama in Four Acts”) has different concerns, some of which I cannot follow – he wrote about a future government that operates in six dimensions, for example – but I know it was an attempt at what he called Pure Form theatre. Kandinsky’s thinking on composition and line had penetrated Witkacy’s thinking on performance: he believed in a new drama that could orchestrate movement, music and “internal scenic construction” (rather than psychology or realistic characters ) to communicate metaphysical meaning. But does “My Onliness” achieve this goal? Does it give the viewer the impression of waking up from a dream, “in which even the most ordinary things had a strange, unfathomable charm”?

Charm, yes. Irizarry’s commitment to entertaining us takes care of that. But it took me a while to feel the metaphysics of the show – I listened and listened to Lyon’s text and couldn’t understand it. The answer, I think, is in Irizarry production. “My Onliness” unfolds all around the audience, who are seated in various orientations around the tiny New Ohio basement. Regardless of how we are faced, we can almost always see the text translated into American Sign Language by one of two “mediums.” (Alexandria Wailes and Kailyn Aaron-Lozano are credited as the ASL co-directors of “Onliness”) The psychics, Malik Paris and Dickie Hearts, wear almost nothing but an iridescent feather necklace; they squirm like go-go dancers signing the text. Occasionally, however, some apparent non-actors in the audience – surprise! – will start their own translation. Therefore, the meaning, which seemed so elusive, is actually everywhere. Whether you understand it or not, whether you meaning Whether or not it is, the air is loaded with communication. Are you Of course that the universe does not speak? It can be so easy to misinterpret his signs as someone dancing.

Meanwhile, at the Chocolate Factory, a former machine shop in Long Island City, there’s a sight Witkacy would have loved. “This and That” abounds in pure forms manipulated and juxtaposed. Staged amidst a jumble of equipment and projectors and lights on stands, it has the feeling of an hour of demonstration, of sharing among friends. It is free from psychology and dialogue, at least in the conventional sense, a bare hour of “choreography” made up only of light and shadow. The Polish catastrophist wouldn’t have recognized his mood, though – it’s soft and fine.


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