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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
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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