featured photo

Go back to Flash Reviews
Go Home

Flash Review 2, 1-15: Playing with FOO
Dean Street Operates on Found Sounds at P.S. 122

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

I don't know about you, but when I go to a black box theater frequently enough, it starts to seem like home. I become as used to seeing certain recurring acts as I am to sitting in my favorite rocking chair at home; when the furniture changes, I sometimes find myself saying, "Well, it's all right, but it doesn't compare to my first rocking chair!"

Of course, when it comes to artists, such weighing is unfair.

About the first show I ever saw at Performance Space 122 was Elevator Repair Service. The following description probably won't adequately explain why ERS gets my funny bone rocking, but I'll try: ERS basically deconstructs and then reconstructs a cultural catalogue and archive that ranges from educational films of the '50s to classic American plays to true crime documentaries to Paul Anka interviews. The dialogue, though often arranged in a collage, is verbatim. What turns it from the dramatic or truly dry into high Dadaesque comedy is ERS's verbal and physical delivery. The shows are highly choreographed, and I'm not just talking about the way the dancer-actors move their bodies, but the pacing and cadence of the spoken words. One key to ERS's success is Katherine Proffet (sp.?)'s choreography, which respects the limits of the actors and is also character-driven and inflected. Another is the extremely high standard of the acting, able to swing from the over-stated to the under-stated for maximum or minimalism effect.

I don't compare everything I see in P.S. 122's intimate downstairs theater to ERS, but when the Dean Street Field of Operation (the FOO) showed up Friday night to open "Who Chops Foo II" and started lip-synching to found B-movie soundtracks (and more), comparisons were inevitable.

Lip-synching is all this act at first seemed like to me. Or perhaps, more exactly, air-acting--in other words, where you or I might play air guitar, Dean Street was air-acting to a much wider sound canvas, including music and dialogue, specifically the B-movie ephemera of '50s American culture. Where ERS performers speak and remix the sound and pace of the actual dialogue themselves, Dean Street's personae seemed to be just mouthing to the actual recordings of the dialogue. Oh, there were props, too, but even these seemed, at first, to be of the weirdness for weirdness's sake variety. I wasn't so sure that the constructed props actually matched--or even grotesquely mis-matched--the sound. The white make-up worn by the actors also put me off--again, seeming a shortcut to weirdness; it's easier to achieve the appearance of extremity with external alterations like make-up than to convey it with good acting.

Dean Street does not act, move, or choreograph at the same detailed, meticulously mapped-out, virtuosic level of ERS.

These performers did, however, find a way to make what they were doing seem authentic and not just superficial play.

The turning point for me, in terms of believability--for even with surreal, grotesque theater, the characters need to believe in their warped universe--came when more than one character was on stage at the same time, and they started reacting to each other. For example, the lights come up on Corinna Hiller, strapped to a hospital gurney, as she mouths this dialogue: "This place is a dump!" It's one of those movie lines you can't quite place, but the response of her fellow actor, stationed by an old wind-up victrola (Can you believe 'victrola' is not in my spellcheck? Argh! Microsoft is killing our cultural memory chip!), brings it into present time, as he responds (mouthing dialogue that has obviously been slowed down), "Can I get you something, Mother? Perhaps I can play you a record?"

In terms of responsiveness, one actor in particular made a difference: Elyas Kahn. In one section, he is soliloquizing for a while--recounting (or air-recounting) for us an incident we can't quite understand, when a whacked-out manic character enters. What makes this second character's behavior believable is largely the realistic reaction/response of Kahn. With his Butoh-like bearing, Kahn seems to have less Tourette's-like tics than the other actors' characters-he's the most normal--and thus comes the closest to being the audience's representative on the stage, reacting as we might to the madness around him. At one point, entering in geisha-drag, he starts to serenely cross the stage, only to be molested by a chicken farmer straight out of "Deliverance."

Notwithstanding my note about lacking virtuosity, Butoh-style interludes are used to great effect, particularly at the conclusion. To a scene of tree branches in fall, with a sheltering sky--projected first on an upstage screen, and then on the actors themselves as they enter--and a sort of plodding but hypnotic music, the six actors move slowly, rhythmically across the stage. Capping what has mostly been a madcap, zany evening, this meditative, restrained quietude is stunning.

The film footage was what I most liked about 'Foo,' and particularly about experiencing it in this theater. Kathi Graffunder's projections were virtuosic, as was Frank DenDanto III's subdued lighting design. But part of the special delight of beholding these in this intimate setting was watching Graffunder, a couple of feet below our third row seats, deftly maneuvering--DJ style--not one, not two, but five Super 8 and 16-millimeter projectors, as well as one VCR deck. The whirring of these devices, so near, on top of the rest of the soundscore--which, overall, had the constant leitmotif of an old scratched record (hearing record grooves that have been around a few thousand times is hearing history)--added to the overall mesmerizing effect. It also added to the general homieness of the evening. And made me think that if seeing ERS is like going to the avante-garde theater to see what the Yale Drama proteges have come up with now, the Dean Street experience is more like having over your very strange neighbors from Brooklyn-you know, the ones who live in that house where there's hammering going on at all hours, and from which bizarre sounds are always emanating--giving them some construction paper for props and some old recordings for sound, and then watching them play pretend in your living room. If ERS is a play at the highest, most original level, Dean Street is simply play. Both are stimulating, but to different stimuli and nerves and in different ways.

"Who Chops Foo II" continues at P.S. 122 through February 6. For specific dates and times, call 212-477-5288.

Go back to Flash Reviews
Go Home