Ukrainian Eggs: Terrible Tales of Tragedy and AlleGorey
nytheatre.com review by Chris Harcum
August 27, 2009
Riedel Dance Theater weaves a spell-binding performance with Ukrainian Eggs: Terrible Tales of Tragedy and AlleGorey, a dance theatre piece based on the illustrative work of Edward Gorey. Ten dancers effortlessly glide their way through nine vignettes conceived, choreographed, and directed by Jonathan Riedel. It is an evening of great humor, strong dancing, first-rate ensemble work, and real visual delight.
Edward Gorey is known for creating The Gashlycrumb Tinies, The Doubtful Guest, and The Wuggly Ump as well as illustrating Charles Dickens, Samuel Beckett, and H.G. Wells among others. His pen and ink work can be considered a gentle precursor to the visual work of Tim Burton, the creator of Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas. But where Burton might portray a dead person as a misguided creature that literally crawled its way out of the dirt with worms wriggling out of its eye sockets, Gorey would portray the same as someone wearing a white bed sheet with eye holes over an Edwardian outfit. It's this olly-olly-oxen-free spirit of Gorey's that gives Riedel's evening a childlike buoyancy and whimsical sophistication.
Dance theatre has a loose definition. On the spectrum of dance, it leans more toward the story end than the pure movement end. Serious bunheads might want more dance, but those accustomed to dialogue will probably be pleasantly surprised how clear Ukrainian Eggs is—like a good cartoon—from beginning to end. Flashes of moments and images mix between the possible and impossible until what you are left with is a feeling. Often it is exuberance. For example, in "The Under Garden" a young woman goes into a garden and plucks a white flower. This causes all sort of chaos as the vegetation comes to life and she is beset by odd creatures while trying to save a baby. In "The Ubiquitous Elephant," a card game is interrupted by a character called The Guest (a.k.a. Death). The Guest's machinations and the card players' reactions are amusing to watch.
Ukrainian Eggs is consistently very funny and, for my money, a lot better than most sketch comedy I've seen. These performers have obviously worked hard to be this cohesive. In this work, if your partner fails you, not only does the joke die but there's a serious risk of injury. Not that you would know there's hard work going on watching this company. Difficult lifts and carries are handled with ease. The postage-stamp-size stage gets flooded by the whole company in an instant, weaving and shifting levels with amazingly uniform musicality.
But the thing that stood out to me most wasn't their leg work or extensions. It was their faces. I don't recall a dance show I've seen where I've enjoyed looking at faces more than this. No plastered smiles covering pain, no glazed-over eyes from remembering choreography, and no dropping out of it when they aren't soloing. They are there, they are enjoying it, and they are conveying something all the time.
Jonathan Riedel's composition work is strong and he is fortunate to have such a gifted group of dancers. Each adds a lot to what is going on. Some are listed as guest artists in the program. Without knowing that, I'd swear they'd been together as a company for several years. Stacey Berman's costumes are integral to the style and visual language of this piece and she executes a design that is flawless. Jennifer Linn Wilcox's lighting takes us from playful atmospheres to spooky realms, adding to Riedel's choreography.
Adele Riedel's props are funny, functional, and work well with the costumes. Her bio mentions that she has "designed costumes, sets, and props for dozens of her children's and grandchildren's theatrical endeavors in the tri-state area." I hope she gets a special citation award at this year's festival. If not, would someone at least please tell her that half the people reading this would give anything to be adopted by someone with her talents.
You would not know this is a FringeJR show unless it is brought to your attention. You can take your parents to see this. You can bring a first date. You can take your schlubby comedy friends. You can impress your snotty hipster neighbor or unexpected European guests. You can even entertain your kids who hate everything with this. If I could go back in time and have this be the first evening of theatre I ever saw, I would be quite happy.