Sunday, January 13, 2008

Under the Radar: "This Place is a Desert," "In Spite of Everything," "Low: Meditations Trilogy," and "Regurgitophagy"

- This Place is a Desert

Photo/Hayden Taylor

"We can talk about love and all the ways it wraps itself around us until it's just another form of suffocation," cries one of the many characters caught up in the pains and pangs of Jay Scheib's This Place is a Desert. And that's exactly what happens: a series of tight and interconnected rooms give way to a tangled snarl of relationships that overlap and clash like human hurricanes. Furthermore, a series of cameras and a passive observer (Kenneth Roraback) air the real time scenes from multiple angles, catching each character's reactions like windows to the soul, a creative use of multimedia that allows for poetic, image-heavy transitions.

As the men and women fling wildly from partner to partner, the locations become just as interchangeable, with borders as porous as the chambers of the heart. A large tan bedroom, with an illusory mirror wall, serves as the home for the couples: Jeanette and Marcello, Mr. and Mrs. Rowe, and Jim and Monica. A pale blue hallway provides the path for all the additional romances -- between Marcello and Victorovna, Monica and Richard Harris -- as does a dark red room that serves both as a place for Jeanette and Mr. Rowe, and as an orgiastic guest room.

The play does a fairly good job of depicting what happens to relationships that outlast the love, and the lingering gaze of the camera, always watching for just a little too long, helps to cement that effect. Unfortunately, the cinematic elements hollow out the stage action (which could be called a metaphor for love, but a dissatisfying excuse, if that), and after mechanical blocking, melodramatic lines delivered to the camera, and a body poetics that is anything but natural, it becomes hard to take some of the actors seriously. Caleb Hammond, for instance, would make a fantastic, egocentric drunk as Mr. Rowe, if he hadn't already played the deathbed flirtations of Bill Faulkner the same way.

Luckily, the play ends on exactly the right note, the pinnacle of anti-romance and modern love: Victornovna (the fantastic Aimee Phelan-Deconinck) pleads with Marcello (Jorge Albert Rubio, who grows more and more into the role as the show continues): "Please. Please, say you don't love me." "No," he replies, digging into her, the two burying, suffocating their heads within each other's bodies. "No. I won't say it."

- In Spite of Everything

Photo/Caroline Harvey

In Spite of Everything
is the best use of spoken word that I've seen in a play yet; an urban yet arty mix of Laramie-like exploration and poetic imagination that divorces itself from reality even as it plunges itself back in, deeper, through brilliant metaphor. Only The Suicide Kings (Rupert Estanislao, Jaime DeWolf, and Geoff Trenchard) know how much of their story is true, but it hardly matters: whether it's a poem about getting fed up in the service industry, dealing with acne, or watching Columbine in reverse, there isn't a verse that isn't relevant, not a thought that someone in the audience won't agree with.

The play opens with The Suicide Kings introducing themselves to an ordinary class in an ordinary American town and then launching into a writer's workshop called "I feel a scream coming in." Unfortunately for them, the next day, 27 kids are dead, and detectives, having found a journal at the scene of the crime, are breathing down Rupert, Jamie, and Geoff's necks, demanding to know what they said to the kid that might have finally made him snap. As they alternate roles between their own self-effacing, honest poetry for the "classroom," as detectives grilling members of the group, or simply giving testimony from the killer's friend, father, and classmates, they are pursued by Sam Bass's slashes of the cello, a musical drive that demands that the void to be filled with words.

And fill it, they do. Segments from their past (fact or fiction?) show us Rupert's initiation into an Asian sect of the Crypts, Jaime as a bullied and Goth-like teenager, and Geoff as a once-violent child, and for all of them, their escape is through the language that gave them a second chance. The show vibrates with these lively verses, poetry that ignores barriers of form or canonized style to take back a disenfranchised street grammar, and the play hums with such powerful lines that I'd have to quote the whole script to do it justice. Grab your pen and paper, or razor and wrist, whatever your medium (their line, not mine), and see In Spite of Everything, for it wasn't talking that made this fictional kid snap; it was his silence.

- Low: Meditations Trilogy Part 1
Photo/Jean Jacques Tiziou

Low opens with a blank slate: an empty chair on one of those white-floored and white-walled setups most familiar from a modeling session or an Apple commercial. What follows is, if you will permit the pun, a monologued bit of white-box theater, a tale from Rha Goddess about Loquitia, a precocious girl who thinks that her teacher is racist to associate Langston Hughes with predecessor Walt Whitman, but young enough to still get into food fights with her sister. These endearing moments carry the show for the first fifteen minutes; Mrs. Goddess gets a high modulation in her pitch to sound purposefully cute, and her free movements around the space give her both attitude and grace.

That's just the prologue: Low is subsequently diagnosed with being depressed, and when she stops taking her medication (so that she can get back to the rapping she yearns to be a part of), she ends up losing even her shitty Starbucks job and moving into the streets to make her own way, a way that ultimately has her giving blow jobs to a McDonald's manager, just so that she can use the bathroom. Her humiliation doesn't end there -- she starts to get physical side-effects that involve uncontrollable spasms and tics, and though she still has sense enough to make fun of the other homeless people, she doesn't realize how far gone she's becoming.

Rha Goddess doesn't seem to notice how far gone her play is either; she's so caught up in preserving the physicality of the character that we get very little of the actual emotion, beyond that which we create from our own fears and automatic empathies. Low wants to be a rapper, but we only ever see her jumping about lip syncing to other rapper's words, which locks us out from Low's inner voice, leaving us only with cold observations. And though Low is forced to endure much humiliation, you'd never be able to tell that from Rha's performance: the words tell us one thing, but her poise tells us another, and while I understand pride, what happens on stage is more a means to armor herself. Where the play finally connects is during a personal epilogue (Rha herself, or as Ana, Low's sister, it isn't clear) that at last allows us to see Low as another person does.

Meditations is an accurate description of this trilogy, for if the first part is any indication, these characters are all internalized and thought out, rather than experienced. Chay Yew has done an excellent job of casting cages of light on the floor, and moving his actor across the stage, but it's up to Rha to show us something more. Right now, Low is just talk, and it's nothing we haven't heard before.

- Regurgitophagy

Photo/Debora 70

I'm sure that Michel Melamed's Regurgitophagy is a great stream-of-consciousness play: I say this because it's one of my fundamental beliefs that you should always give a man who is electrocuting himself the benefit of the doubt. But what I saw on the stage was a man desperately trying to communicate something to the audience about consciousness, and what I saw in the audience were a bunch of disbelieving onlookers trying not to laugh. You see, Melamed uses a system he calls "Pau-de-Arara" to directly interface with the audience; electric clamps are attached to his body so that when we make noise of any kind, he gets shocked. Some of Melamed's jokes simply aren't funny, or they haven't translated properly from Brazil to America, but for the great majority of the time, puzzled people were trying to figure out whether or not respond to his questions, whether or not they should laugh, and best of all, whether or not it would be alright to applaud the man.

Honestly, I wanted to clap just to hurt him; after all, it's not my fault he hooked himself up to a machine like that, nor is it my fault that his text hasn't yet translated well into English. But I have another policy, too, and that's not to do anything to an artist that I wouldn't have done to me, and when he offered to show the audience that the shocks were not fake, I didn't exactly leap at the opportunity. (For what it's worth, there was plenty of noise the machine did not pick up on, and plenty of times that the machine was turned off, so the show is still more about the gimmick than his actual point.)

In any case, when Melamed read in his own language toward the end of the show, he sounded clear, strong, and confident. And when he recited off strings of three letter words toward the beginning, I started to understand the way in which nonsense could be turned into sense. But until he resolves the language barrier, American audiences are just paying to watch a man electrically flagellate himself, and that's not my idea of theater.

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