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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 wonderment.

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 by it.

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 paul@danceinsider.com)


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