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Flash Review 1, 8-28: Misfits for Outcasts
Dance and Theater in Small Corners

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2000 Susan Yung

The New York culture scene in late August is a reflection of the city as a whole, where -- according to yesterday's New York Times -- all the bigshots have gone fishin', leaving only the misfits to entertain the outcasts. Happily, this outcast found some intriguing events presented by misfits in some unpredictable spots, even by Fringe Festival standards.

Friday night, I found myself accompanying a friend to a show (not in the Fringe NYC Festival) about which I knew next to nothing and so carried no preconceptions, though I did expect it to involve a black-box theater with no fire egress. We zeroed in on the West 104th St. venue, a charming courtyard garden; the stage was little more than a small platform, the dressing rooms small domed tents, and the orchestra and lighting crew were director Henry William Oelkers, who played the flute and follow-spotlit the actors with a flashlight. A local troupe called The Play's the Thing performed "A Night in Elsinore," a takeoff on "Hamlet" by Richard Nathan. While the non-stop jokes and wordplay sometimes drew groans amidst the guffaws from the standing-room only audience, the resourceful company could bottle and sell its enthusiasm. The outdoor setting felt like it may have been close in spirit to original productions of Shakespeare's work, and the night itself was intoxicating -- starlit, cool, transcendent.

The next night brought "Sommerfrische" by tanztheater homunculus, cited in press material as a leading contemporary dance company in Austria, with choreography by Manfred Aichinger and direction by Gunther Mortl. The Harry du Jur Playhouse seemed an unlikely setting for a group billed as contemporary: it's a beautifully restored gem with a small proscenium stage. But when a family of four straight out of "The Sound of Music" came barging through the side doors, picking their way through the audience with their laden picnic baskets, it seemed a perfect fit.

Over the next hour, we watched the perfect nuclear family detonate, and the explication, through dance, of each member gave us remarkably probing insight into the individuals behind their facades. Prim mother lets her hair down, dutiful father drinks heavily and chases skirts, and so on. The hammy play-acting gave way to sections of contemporary dance which made ample use of incorporated gestures, shooting arms punctuated with surprised hands, and shimmying shoulders and heads. The show's form alluded to operetta and while music by Lehar and Strauss provided a soundtrack, the dances succeeded in narrating the work the way songs do in a musical. Though the genres in theory are conceptually at odds, one balanced the other effectively.

The premise of a family on vacation is a useful parable for the political and sociological climate in Austria. Enforced frivolity masks the underlying cutthroatedness lying beneath even the most banal of activities, like sunbathing or wood chopping. A stroll (well, march) through the countryside could not be dampened by stinging insects and tumbles off the path. Two of the most touching dances involved the son, who discovers sweet, comforting companionship in a bird. Later, as he and his sister sought solace in one another from their parents' abandonment, a simple, slow dance clearly conveyed the situation, without sentimentality. They linked arms, walked together, knocked heads, and sunk to the ground in resignation.

As another branch of the tree that is European dance theater, tanztheater homunculus has cultivated, at least with "Sommerfrische," a light-hearted, humorous way of treating darker subject matter. Now if only the Fringe Festival could somehow find a way, by curating or scheduling, to draw a larger audience than the meager band of misfits that included me...

The cast of "Sommerfrische" included Elena Chovanec, Alexander Fend, Karin Kassal, Ingrid Kellner, Gisa Schafzahl, Karin Steinbrugger, Max Steiner, Andrea Stotter, and Susi Wisiak.

For more information on the company, visit its web site.

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