On the Banks of the Surreal
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 6, 2005
The idea behind On the Banks of the Surreal is to give theatregoers a sampling of some of the works of seminal artists in the surreal / absurd / dada movements that influenced (though never really dominated) dramatic writing in Europe in the years preceding and following World War II. Director Shela Xoregos has put together a bill of five short works by Tzara, Ghelderode, Ionesco, Cocteau, and Magritte, along with a few other morsels, to give us a flavor of the style. I think the performance is meant to feel like a woozy evening at an avant-garde Paris cabaret circa 1950, and the second half of the evening actually kind of does.
Act Two consists of, first, a petite radio play by Jean Cocteau called The Practical Joke, in which an actor recounts the utterly surprising events of a particular evening that cured him of his habit of playing jokes on others. Rupak Ginn, the storyteller, is dressed anachronistically in 18th century costume—for no reason I could figure out, which I guess is the director's nod to absurdism. This is followed by a delightful three-act play called The Round Square by Rene Magritte that strikes me as the very epitome of the surreal: it's wildly ridiculous, it pokes fun at everything in sight, it's furiously fast, and it's childishly scatological. Performed by Christopher Berryman, Rachel Lu, and Dirk Weiler, it makes us laugh, makes us feel superior, and absolutely gets our attention.
Talented baritone John Rose appears next, to deliver a song for which no title is provided in the program (nor an author; all we are told is that it was published in Philadelphia in 1840). It's a little ballad told from the point of view of a young woman who is trying to convince her mother that she will not become a nun. Rose performs it without irony; quite beautifully, actually. The interlude is another exemplar of the subversive nature of the surreal.
The final item on the agenda is Ionesco's 1952 comedy Maid to Marry, a delicious non-sequitur dialogue punctuated by continuous irrelevant though very precise action. A man and woman play ball, ride in a car, paddle a rowboat, jump rope, and do any number of other ludicrous things whilst conducting a very serious conversation. This complicated piece is nicely executed by Dirk Weiler and Jen Arvay (with Ginn turning up at the very end for a surprise finish).
All of the foregoing happens in about a half-hour, and makes for quite a zany and provocative roller-coaster ride. Happily, these weird little pieces retain their capacity to entertain and surprise and even jolt, even after Monty Python and Rowan & Martin made their modus operandi de rigueur.
On the Banks of the Surreal's first act, however, is less successful in making its once-innovative content feel either accessible or interesting. It consists of two pieces, each about a half-hour long: Tristan Tzara's The Gas Heart, a nonsensical dada play in which actors portraying parts of a face converse and babble; and Michel de Ghelderode's Escurial, a surrealist drama about a king and his jester. The Tzara piece displays its avant-garde credentials proudly and obviously without appearing to amount to anything more than an experiment. It's worth seeing in an academic way, but I wasn't able to parse it meaningfully. Escurial suffers here from being played by actors not up to its formidable challenge: it's almost postmodern in its determination to refute meaning or value as the king and jester trade places back and forth and jostle to prove who will mourn the death of the queen more. Neither piece manages not to feel ponderous, I'm afraid. A nifty interlude with singer Rose is the act's high point; an intermission recitation by actress Niae Knight reminds us of Xoregos's intent and helps prepare us for the much more enlightening second half of the evening.
It's a worthy notion to put all of this work before us—as I've suggested, these playwrights have had enormous influence on theatre as we know it, and it's always good to discover more about our roots. I commend Xoregos for putting this ambitious and unusual evening together.