Friday, May 28, 2010

New Island Archipelago

Photo/Darien Bates

"I love the sea. It is so unpredictable," says Captain Benny Zibara (Steven Rattazzi). The second part of that introduction is true, and a fair warning of The Talking Band's casually absurd bent. But it takes a certain type of weathered theatergoer to agree with the first part, to love a mercurial show like New Islands Archipelago. That's twice as true given Paul Zimet's unfocused direction (surprising, or not, considering that it's his script), which makes it even harder to follow the action--it's not just hard to make sense of certain events, like a hand crawling out of a trash bag, it's sometimes hard to even notice them. Moreover, the theatrical tricks--portholes that suddenly appear, see-sawing tables, a twisting shuffleboard court--distract from the dialogue, forcing the audience to accept the weak expository sections, and the inconsistencies in characters. If the journey actually went somewhere, the frivolity might turn to novelty; instead, the play turns to a miniature farce before ending with a literal shipwreck.

The plot of a show like this is beside the point, but since the representational meaning is lost in the fog, here goes. Pricilla (Tina Shepard) is tired of the conformity of her city home, and wants an adventure--"You can't find underwear that doesn't go up your crack, the air is un-breathable, they call every cocktail a martini." She brings her orphaned blank-slate of a granddaughter Oona (Kristine Haruna Lee) along, as well as her screechy friend, Dot (Ellen Maddow), who has her own secret motivation--her estranged son Charlemagne, more familiarly known as Lem (Todd D'Amour), works for the cruise line. As coincidences have it, Oona's lost mother, the amnesiac Virginia (Bianca Leigh) is also aboard, and there are the makings of cheap romance everywhere: between Oona and Lem, and Pricilla and Herman (James Himelsbach), an elderly con artist with a real-estate scheme. Ostensibly, everyone's looking for something, and their faith is what gets them by, especially with their vivid, vivid dreams. (Simon Tarr's videos seem nice, but are often hard to make out against the dull curves of Nic Ularu's hull of a set.)

There are some bizarrely enjoyable moments--a talent show in which the passengers bring verbs like "to protrude" to life--and some nice chemistry in the unabashedly goofy dances between Lem and Oona, but the ship refuses to stay on course. Lem abruptly turns into an anti-capitalist who wages class warfare by robbing the rich passengers, Pricilla starts looking over her shoulder like a capital Paranoid, Virginia keeps dressing up as characters from the novel she's trying to write, and Zibara turns into some weird half-fish, half-bird creature (made out of balloons). These changes are rarely acknowledged and never satisfactorily addressed: "Play Overboard!" is the warning that springs to mind.

If you're not seasick yet, New Island Archipelago might be right up your abstract alley. Just make sure you bring your own life preserver and bucket, because neither Zimet nor his company are going to bail you out.

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