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Flash 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 accordion.

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 sad song.

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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