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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
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
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