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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
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
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