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Flash Review 3, 3-31:
Return to Innocence, III
Finding the Child Inside the Audience at the New Victory
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider
Usually at a New York
theater, the pre-show audience ambient sounds range from mild murmurs
to excited hubbubs. At the New Victory Theater, that grand experiment
of a children's (not "kiddy") theater in a grand old Broadway house,
the atmosphere is more like being at the circus. The schoolchildren
in the audience Thursday morning for Imago Theater's "Frogs, Lizards,
Orbs, and Slinkys" (the show opens to the public tonight) were in
an uproar before the show even started. An uproar which skyrocketed
as the piece unfolded, and the kids variously screamed, sighed,
barked instructions to characters and, in one case, even fled from
the front row. But then, you might too, if a gargantuan lizard's
tale was pursuing you.
It has always seemed
a little odd to me to be at a show which is just rippling with energy
and unbridled bodies on stage, and then to look at the audience,
most of whom (myself included!) are sitting back in their seats
as if they're at a wake. I am not necessarily knocking them for
this; their hearts may be roaring, their minds incited, inside.
But when we grow up, except for the occasionally "bravo" and clapping,
we somehow stop responding viscerally, even when what we're seeing
is visceral. Our bodies are disassociated with their bodies.
Imagine, tho, if you're
a young person experiencing this for the first time. What do I mean
by 'this'? Shortly before yesterday's matinee started, an enthusiastic
teacher named Michael addressed his class in the row in front of
me, "Now guys, I just want you to look at this theater, cuz it's
beautiful. It's called a 'proscenium'--the same thing as at our
school. It's like looking into a hanging picture frame."
That all this was a novelty
to many in the audience was apparent as soon as the lights went
down. I heard many 'ah's, and one young boy looked up in amazed
These children also,
though, appreciated subtlety. The morning began with three frogs,
squatting, giant frog masks (every Imago creature is masked and
body-costumed, throughout) staring drolly forward....and not moving
for several minutes. Then one looked, slowly, at the one next to
him/her. This one looked at the third...The third looked at them.
They started jumping--again, slowly, one jump at a time--forward
in the same order, only when the third tried his upper body wanted
to leap forward but he found that his feet were glued to the floor.áHe
was movement-impaired. This theme was played out, producing out-loud
group sighs from the audience...until the entrance of the lizards
and iguanas--full-body costumed and with tiny pinpoint red laser-like
lights for eyes, and more the size of large alligators. They played
pile up, which is when their tails started to wander into the audience,
which is when one young woman fled the front row.
But when the lights went
out, leaving the demonic red eyes as the only illumination in the
theater, that's when the screams, literally, hit the roof. Imagine
you're on a roller-coaster with 400 kids and you get the idea! This
is probably a good point to mention, if you haven't guessed already,
that while the New Victory does have strict rules--no bubble gum,
for instance--being quiet is not one of them. This is by virtual
fiat of New 42nd Street president Cora Cahan, who not only wants
to allow children to react vociferously, but encourages them to
do so. As you also might have guessed, I think this is a great thing!
Having someone make a little noise by screaming in reaction to what
they're seeing is very different from someone behind you taking
20 minutes to open a cough drop.
Regarding Imago, I don't
want you to think they just went for cheap and easy scare tactics.
The lights were out again for "Strings," in which the successful
illusion was that the strings were amoeba-like apparitions, eventually
somehow forming a shirt poltergeist. It flew around, too, apparently
(appartion-ly?) a garment with an invisible body, until the glowing
strings lassoed it and took it off the stage.
It's hard to really get
across this type of disembodied illusion, because often sufficient
light filters in for us to see those objects are really being manipulated
by bodies. But this worked.
Slightly less convincing
and enthralling--illusion-wise, anyway--was "Larvabatic," in which
Kimberly Dahl wore a larva-like head on her butt, its body/tail
extending from her head, and its arms really being her feet. The
illusion was that it was walking on its hands, even though these
were really her feet. (Larvabatic being a play on acrobatic, Dahl
explained to the audience later.)
We got to see a little
more subtle comedy from Dahl later, greatly assisted by a large-headed
mask of a baby's face. In one-piece jammies, Dahl's infant tussled
with a large sphere, exchanging shoves with it and even being trampled
The comedy that really
hit home for the child inside me, tho, was "Penguins." One by one
five large arctic creatures enter, waddling to and fro across the
stage. Then they start waddling around a set of four chairs upstage,
to music, and pretty soon we've guessed what's coming. It takes
them a moment longer. When the music stops, they look around befuddled
before scrambling, penguin-paced, for the four available chairs.
Yes, it's musical chairs. Anyone who's ever played or supervised
this child's game can recognize the sophisticated strategy that
follows; one player always touches the chair at the end as they
round it, ready to flop down. Another flops down while the music
is still going. Then there are some tactics I've never seen the
most ruthless children try; one penguin pulls a chair out from behind
another player as he tries to sit.
The audience participation
part comes when the one remaining penguin, out of chairs, waddles
to the lip of the stage, and the kids guess what's coming even before
he starts surveying the audience furniture. "Over here! Sit here!"
they implore, pointing to nearby empty chairs, before he flops off
the stage and butt-boots a teacher out of her chair. She doesn't
give it up easily.
The children do give
it up easily. As someone who has grown used to getting a few looks
if he even titters at a moment others consider serious--indeed,
I many times get the sense audiences are afraid to laugh even at
moments that are meant to be funny --I found this inspiring. If
you want to see the show and audience reaction for yourself, Imago
Theater's "Frogs, Lizards, Orbs and Slinkys" is up this weekend,
Friday through Sunday, and next, with matinees and early evening
performances. (And you'll see more; the school show did not include
three segments which are in the longer public show.) For specific
times, go to www.newvictory.org.
While there, you might want to check out the "Haiku Horoscopes,"
reportedly written by the 100-year-old theater's own resident ghost,
as channeled by a current staffer. (Note to webmistress/channeler:
Current Haikus are for February; you might want to update.) Mine:
People near you wish
For some silence now and then.
Shut your pie hole now.
(Editor's note: You can
find "Return to Innocence II" in the archive;
to read "Return to Innocence," e-mail email@example.com)
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