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Flash Review Journal, 1-21: Eating 'Jennie'; Cocooning
Darger Ripens for Wellman & Parsons; Uchizono Floats a 'Butterfly'

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2003 Susan Yung

NEW YORK -- Ridge Theater's production of "Jennie Richee (or Eating Jalooka Fruit Before it's Ripe)," by Mac Wellman, seen last Wednesday, is in a brief run at Arts at St. Ann's Warehouse in Dumbo, Brooklyn through Sunday. About the life and work of self-taught artist and writer Henry Darger, "Jennie Richee" captures Darger's abundant fictional and painterly ramblings with a lean theatrical inventiveness. And Daniel Zippi portrays Darger with merciless intensity, using his deep, dark voice in near-lethal doses.

It's a good thing Henry Darger chose art and writing as the weapons with which to express the tumult in his mind, or we might all be in trouble. Darger (1892-1973) earned a living as janitor in Chicago, after a rough childhood. As a young adult, he began to write and illustrate the world within his head, involving constant battles between the Vivian Girls (in the show, dressed in identical yellow frocks, by Pilar Limosner), the Glandelinians, and other factions. The result -- "The Realms of the Unreal," a 15,000-page tome out-rivalling if not the complex mythology of the "Lord of the Rings," then at least the latter's sheer volume -- was only discovered in the final year of Darger's life. "Jennie Richee" is a montage of autobiographical and narrative monologues by Darger stitched together with delirious, pastille-hued tableaux featuring Vivian Girls, Blengins (winged creatures), and military personnel. In each setting, the characters are so deliberately placed and carefully lit, they resemble department store windows.

"Jennie Richee"'s creative team includes Bob McGrath (director), Julia Wolfe (who wrote the haunting music), Laurie Olinder (visual design), and Cynthia Hopkins (who performs her own cool, hypnotic songs dressed as a Vivian Girl). David Parsons is credited with the movement -- more traffic management than choreography -- culminating in a storm scene to pulsating music and the haunting "Jennie Richee" theme, with wind-blown stage crossings interrupted midway by frozen positions. The Vivian Girls formed a ring and moved through a series of step-step-pose, crossing in two lines back and forth. They wound up forming a wedge, jerking through their routines.

While the show includes songs and movement, they are not pivot points as they are in musical theater, but serve to add texture and richness. Ridge Theater slices the stage box into parallel layers which rise upstage in height, and are separated by scrims which serve as projection screens and light filters. In any given scene, each "cell" may be inhabited by performers both upstage and downstage, creating an impressive receding depth. Howard Theis's lighting controls the focal point at any moment. So while there is little in the way of open stage space, the range of expressiveness is quite flexible through the use of shifting tableaux and slide projections. When Darger's painting of the caverns is projected toward the piece's conclusion -- featuring dark children's silhouettes in the foreground, and a hive of activity yonder -- it becomes obvious how perfectly well-suited Darger's story is to this technique.

Like Darger, at times the show was irritating and repetitive. Like Darger, it was bizarrely inventive and intellectually unfettered, yet it was delivered in languages we know -- literature and art. Rather than attempt to follow the story, once I'd lost track of the whimsical character names, it served me better to simply absorb all the varied input and consider it a window into Darger's complex mind; a reminder of human creative potential -- for better or worse.

Donna Uchizono premiered her new work, "Butterflies from my Hand - Part I," at the Joyce Theater's Altogether Different series, which I watched on January 16. It shared the program with last year's "Low" -- a mixed blessing, as the the latter work's seductive lyricism and hypnotic circular rhythms, based on the tango, left me yearning for more of the same. Yet 'Butterflies' yielded some special moments, despite feeling somewhat unfinished. (The completed work is slated for a September premiere.)

The piece began with Anna Azrieli suspended from a length of red fabric, cutting herself free with shears only to collapse to earth. She was joined onstage by Levi Gonzalez, Kayvon Pourazar, and Carla Rudiger, who whipped their heads atop slinking torsos and rocked side to side. They exploded off the ground, leaping and crashing down, winding up in armless cobra positions, craning their heads around in wonder. At other times, they scrubbed the floor or washed windows in scribbling, compulsive motions. Through deeply lunging chassees and pivots, rounding their upper bodies through high arches, they moved in swelling waves.

The dancers' hands and arms often took on lives of their own, darting cross-body with the torso tagging along. Uchizono's movement sometimes looks like raw reflexive reaction rather than pre-planned choreography, a tribute to her talented dancers as well as her considerable analytical and physical inventiveness. A couple performed the final scene, in which -- again limbless -- prone, they wormed diagonally on the floor to meet mid-stage in a kiss. Love triumphed against all odds.

The work is set to Guy Yarden's spacy soundscape, with ravishing costumes by Wendy Winters and brilliant lighting by Stan Pressner, who threw into the mix some breathtaking turbid sea-greens and molten crimsons.

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