Shuffle: Elevator Repair Service, Brooklyn Public Library

21 09 2012

I was lounging at an oversized library desk, perusing the papers strewn about – fragments of Gatz (The Great Gatsby), The Select (The Sun Also Rises) and The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1978) – when Mike Iveson plopped down behind me. I swiveled around, perching my left arm over the back of the chair, and leaned back for the monologue that was sure to follow. Iveson locked eyes with me, only occasionally peering down into his floppy paperback book for his lines. He began:

She was a slender, small-breasted girl with an erect carriage which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet. Her grey sun-strained eyes looked back at me with polite reciprocal curiosity of a wan, charming discontented face. It occurred to me now that I had seen her, or a picture of her, somewhere before.

How uncanny. Was this monologue about me? Fitzgerald seamlessly gave way to Hemingway, and Iveson’s commitment to deliver this monologue directly to me increased with each line. However self-conscious, I was wholly enraptured by the performance – and, in fact, had become a tacit part of the show myself. Mike Iveson was reading the text, and the text seemed to be reading me.

Such glowing moments make Elevator Repair Service’s experimental installation Shuffle a worthwhile experiment in the inaugural BEAT Festival, which celebrates Brooklyn’s Emerging Artists in Theater. ERS – with Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin – mashes up the texts of their recent trilogy of acclaimed literary adaptations in an improvisatory event in the stacks of the Brooklyn Public Library. While a machine scrolls through the interlocking texts, the performers read their lines off iPhones cleverly housed in gutted paperbacks. The scripts are simultaneously projected onto the walls and several screens throughout the space, and audience members are encouraged to mingle with the performers a la Sleep No More. Improvisation is a challenge with an ever-shifting array of fragmented texts and the actors’ noses frequently buried in the books, but Shuffle is certainly a thought provoking new piece.

Most of Shuffle is utterly cacophonous; the phrases occasionally fly across the screens too quickly for the performers to handle, and some actors are visibly less comfortable with improvisation than others. (Can you – and should you – commit to a character choice when your “character” is a series of decidedly discontinuous bits?) The show is set up in four 22-minute cycles with a somewhat awkward, dead break between each performance round. The reading room is littered with John Collins’ directing diagrams and clippings from the novels to keep the audience entertained, but most audience members opt to whip out their own iPhones for a bit of web browsing during these respites: a meta moment, adding another layer of texts to the proceedings.

The actors’ choices became more bold as the opening night’s show progressed, and sensational moments began to sync up in the textual algorithm. Scattered across the theatrical space, the actors rapidly recited a list of nouns, an array of sentences beginning with “She was,” and a series of “Why?” and “Because.” Actors played more with vocal inflections and the acoustics of the library, particularly an empty and echoey hallway. Actors grew more comfortable engaging with their audience, spontaneously directing lines – and sometimes entire monologues – at their onlookers.

At a certain point in the second cycle, I sat down at a desk, picked up a copy of The Great Gatsby, and began reading silently, simply letting the other texts jostle around me. While ERS’s Gatz offered the experience of wholly disappearing into a work of literature and shutting off the outside world, Shuffle offered the aural sensation of intertextuality; my attention phased in and out as I tapped into the varied conversations around the room. I found a certain pleasure in the literary bustle, although another audience member simply confessed, “I don’t get it.”

Shuffle is scattershot, to be sure: variously taking shape and falling apart before your very eyes – and, even more importantly, your ears. Yet I walked out of the Brooklyn Public Library tonight unable to stop thinking about what I had experienced, particularly those unexpected and uncanny moments of synchronicity between texts, as well as between performers and audience members. Give everyone in the audience a glass of champagne and ERS may really kick off a literary party. Right now, the concept intrigues more than the execution – but Elevator Repair Service is to be commended for this playful, participatory experiment.


A Year in Theater: 2011

20 12 2011

2011 has been a whirlwind theatrical year. Last winter, I music directed two incredibly rewarding ensemble shows: Brecht and Weill’s Happy End (with director Hunter Bird) and The Civilians’ Gone Missing (with director Lane Williamson). My family musical Thank You, Mr. Falker (with book and lyrics by Andrew Bentz) premiered at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre in May. I traveled across the US to see and review and dramaturg shows this summer and fall. I was particularly drawn to experimental literary adaptations this year, straying from the mainstream venues and musicals that dominated last year’s list.

I always see more theater than I have the time to review, but here are my top 10 shows of 2011 – from LA to Chicago to NYC, from gritty black box theaters to Broadway stages.

10. The Comedy of Errors (Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble) – Review

Playing in the realm of contemporary pop culture, this free summer Shakespeare production had the audience roaring with laughter from start to finish. It’s perhaps no surprise that I saw The Comedy of Errors twice.

9. God of Carnage (Ahmanson Theater)

Yasmina Reza’s play snaps from a sophisticated realist dramedy to a brilliant physical satire of “modern” man. With a star studded cast direct from Broadway, God of Carnage was an unexpectedly explosive favorite this year. (While the stage show has more fireworks, Roman Polanski’s film Carnage offers powerhouse performances and clever drunken camera work.)

8. D is for Dog (Rogue Artists Ensemble) – Review

The collaborative artistry behind D is for Dog was astounding – from the story to the music, from the set to the puppetry. I was enthralled by every twist and turn in Rogue Artists Ensemble’s smart sci-fi thriller.

7. Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway (Broadhurst Theater)

This unbelievably charismatic man lives up to the hype. Whether you’re seated on the first row of the orchestra or the back of the mezzanine (like me), Hugh invites you into his musical world with silly stories and flirty banter, cool and confident moves, a powerhouse voice, and genuine smile. He leaps effortlessly from macho Billy Bigelow to flashy Peter Allen, and I adore him for it.

6. Jerry Springer the Opera (Chance Theater) – Review

Kudos to the Chance Theater for conquering such a morally and musically challenging opera. Jerry Springer the Opera has yet to receive (and may never receive) a full production at a mainstream venue in the United States, but the Chance continually impresses with exciting productions of innovative work.

5. David Greenspan’s Poetics and Plays (Getty Villa)

David Greenspan’s performative lecture of Aristotle’s Poetics and Gertrude Stein’s Plays enacts the imbrication of performance in academics and academics in performance. I was dorkily enthralled. Charles McNulty may have preferred the classical Aristotle portion, but my theatergoing companion and I found Greenspan’s Stein to be uncanny.

4. The Last Act of Lilka Kadison (Lookingglass Theater) – Review

On my first trip to Chicago, I was inspired by the palpable art of listening across ensembles at Steppenwolf and Lookingglass. The Last Act of Lilka Kadison made theatrical magic of an utterly predictable story.

3. The Select (The Sun Also Rises) (Elevator Repair Service)

I have never been a fan of Hemingway’s macho prose – but with an ensemble of enthralling storytellers in a bar, corks popping and bottles flying, and a dash of music and dance, Hemingway was transmuted into a kind of camp. I was captivated. I’ll be back for Gatz this spring.

2. Septimus and Clarissa (Ripe Time) – Review

I was already a fan of Virginia Woolf’s soft, sensuous narrative voice that sweeps from one character to another, from interiority to exteriority. Ripe Time clarified and amplified Mrs. Dalloway for me, physicalizing Woolf’s words with such profound nuance and care.

1. Cyclops: A Rock Opera (Psittacus Productions) – Reviews and More

This raucous rock opera adaptation of Euripides’ satyr play consumed me – from Son of Semele to Pasadena Playhouse to the NY Musical Theatre Festival. I ended up occupying a strange and shifting position as a fan, critic, scholar, and dramaturg on the company’s road to NYMF. But most of all, I loved being a friend and advocate for such a smart and sexy new work.

Happy holidays, all. Looking forward to a very theatrical 2012! I’m kicking off the new year by dramaturging a new rock opera The Demise, previewing at The Roxy on January 19. And look for me music directing Act III Theater Ensemble’s Xanadu at UCLA in early March!