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Review 2, 5-12: Layered by Dream Logic
Chaikin and Pig Iron Stun with "Shut Eye"
By Lisa Kraus
Copyright 2004 Lisa Kraus
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NEW YORK -- "Shut Eye,"
seen at Dance Theatre Workshop Thursday in its New York premiere,
is the brainchild of Pig Iron Theatre Company, a Philadelphia-based
multi-disciplinary ensemble, and the late Joseph Chaikin, co-directing his
final production. Asked to collaborate on making a new work in 2001,
Chaikin, best known as director of the seminal Open Theatre, began
by offering some words: "office ordinary day, sleeping unconscious
dreaming extraordinary." These catalyzed a summer of improvisation
and resulted in an hour of set material, later scrapped, but useful
as fodder for the present show's weave of realism and substitution,
aerial dance and musical comedy.
In "Shut Eye" not only
are the senses fed nonstop, the images and connections are linked
and layered by dream logic -- text spewing in apparent disconnect
from action as medical and business jargon stands in for everyday
language. There's constant switching -- one character takes the
place of another, one mouths the words another has uttered not long
before; one prop, a muffin, becomes a stand-in for just about any
object. A darkly comedic tone extends throughout, as song and dance
erupt in miserable circumstances.
On entering the DTW
space, we find a young man lying still in a hospital bed. House
lights go down. Nothing changes. Machinery bleeps. A loudspeaker
pages hospital staff. A sullen aide rolls in her mop bucket and
proceeds to dip, drip, squeeze, and mop. An expectant young woman
arrives, introduces herself as Judy, the sister of the recumbent
man, and settles in next to his unresponsive form. Silence and awkward
sadness descend. Can he hear? Will he wake? This scene, familiar
to viewers of Pedro Almodovar's "Talk to Her," reveals how wrenchingly tender it is
to love someone in the unclear netherworld between life and death.
Judy offers a muffin, chats clumsily. From here the co-creators
of "Shut Eye" weave a series of plausible and fantastical events:
a business meeting convenes over the bed of the comatose man, who
springs to life and joins in, a woman is ever-wandering toward the
'sleep lab,' the doctor evades hard questions, a couple dances in
the space between honesty and deceit -- all an overlaying of spheres
of lives lived in public and private, in waking and sleeping.
"Shut Eye" bursts with
satisfying movement and sweeping visual changes. Set elements by
Hiroshi Iwasaki roll in and through the space. Hospital screens
provide easy camouflage for sleight-of-hand entrances and exits,
fluorescent lights glare and flicker. A gliding swivel chair arcs
into the space, figures bounce and fall onto mattresses, a jumping
men's trio holds an in-and out-of-synch business conference.
There are two all-out
show stoppers: a full cast cabaret lullaby, with slithery dancers
in bowler hats and tap pants; and an absurdist 21st century operetta
where soloist and chorus dash about, all the while enunciating swiftly.
Music was composed by James Sugg, who also accompanies on lilting
A gleaming aluminum
ladder ascends vertically upstage and is the locus for a stunning,
vulnerable moment, a somnolent suspended ballet between brother
and sister in which, moving in opposite directions, they meet and
hold sleep positions as if seen from above. They rest fitfully,
caught off guard, soft and uncomposed.
Another deft piece of
physical theater renders the moment preceding the "accident." We
see the brother, who we learn is called Matthew, as a multi-tasking
driver: on the cell phone, unwrapping food, unfurling a magazine,
accumulating woefully funny action.
As the narrative unfolds,
Judy and Matthew switch places. We wonder: Who is the real patient?
What's really happening? Has there been a disastrous car crash or
is the victim actually fine, now revealed to be a cheeky guy spewing
chummy corporate pep talk? The arc of the work -- through disorientation,
contemporary ills of rote experience, duplicity, overload, the soft
seduction of sleep/death -- resolves in no resolution. It is as
it is and maybe we are just dreaming it anyway. As one character
opines, "How do we know we're not dreaming right now? How do we
know we haven't dreamed this entire day?"
As the piece ends, the
aide rolls in her mop and bucket, to set the stage for someone else's
In these days of economic
squeeze it's unusual to see ensemble performing so intricately worked
and with such prodigious invention. Credit goes to Joseph Chaikin
and Dan Rothenberg for direction and Deborah Stein for writing.
The performers of Pig Iron can do it all. They act, dance, play
music and sing exceedingly well, and in a post-show Q & A, they
all exude an incisive, inquisitive intelligence. Showcased here
are Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel, Cassandra Friend, Suli Holm, Sarah
Sanford, Geoff Sobelle, James Sugg and Dito van Riegersberg. Light
is by John Steven Hoey, costumes are by Rosemarie McKelvie and sound
is by Nick P. Rye.
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