nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 18, 2005
The first act of Limitless Joy, the new "really big show" from International WOW Company, is a knockout. It is authentically a total manifestation of its title: 28 actors, reassuringly diverse in terms of ethnicity, size, and body type, explore the highs and lows of interacting and acting out, playing with chairs and tomatoes and buckets of waters on pulleys and a few tall ladders to constantly construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct their environment and their seemingly random choices. They use every inch of the vast open space that director/conceiver Josh Fox has turned the Flamboyan Theatre into; even the courtyard just beyond the rear wall—enticingly lit under the nighttime sky—is part of the show, with actors occasionally traipsing through the grass into and then out of our line of vision.
The company members make a grand entrance out of what looks like a giant toy box, carrying with them enough chairs for an Ionesco revival or two. They turn themselves into an audience, looking out with wonder and anticipation at us. They build a house on stage. They pelt tomatoes at a narrator who bores them; they offer other tomatoes, tenderly and tentatively, to potential beloveds. The tomatoes actually build up a momentum of their own, bombarding out of the toy box. There is a war, and then a tending to the wounded, and then a makeshift peace during which the tomatoes are fed to the survivors.
The transitions between each of these segments are blissfully seamless, like a great dance piece or, for that matter, Monty Python or Laugh-In at their best. (I was reminded of all three forms at various times.)
It's strange and wondrous and incongruous and delightful and sometimes disturbing and often funny and usually awe-inspiring. From a technical perspective, it's a theatrical feat of immense proportion. From an spectator's perspective, it's a magical, mystical, moving experience—one that plays almost exclusively to the emotions (as opposed to the intellect) with raw, visceral power. I can't say what Limitless Joy is about other than the energy of possibility, realized in tableaux and images that are dazzling and beautiful.
The second act tries to explain itself, which turns out to be problematic. Much of this segment—which begins in a surreal vision of the contemporary American workplace, with office drones chained to desks and office equipment—feels didactic: a journey from the limits imposed by societal values to the supposed freedom of a less modern but still ritualized lifestyle. Fox tests his audience's patience and stamina severely with a very long (15-20 minutes, I'd say) section during which almost nothing happens on stage except several actors "fishing" in a stream. This is followed by some very distracting business involving a number of actors showering in front of us (to clean off the mud they've smeared on themselves for the ritual), upstaging a long monologue that may have been intended as a summing-up, and consequently sort-of stranding us at the end. (This and a few other long speeches in the play also point up that artful silence is often far more eloquent than long-winded speech.)
So the last hour or so of this three-hour spectacle disappointed and dismayed me; I think I understand what Fox and his collaborators are trying to say, but I think they over-say it. Nevertheless, Limitless Joy has to be regarded as a phenomenal achievement, and all of the artists involved must be congratulated for creating such a seamless whole out of so many disparate elements. Visually, the show is stunning (credit Fox's extraordinary directorial eye and his designers David Esler, Charles Foster, and Beau Alluli). The choreography, by Peter Schmitz (who executes a good deal of it himself, beautifully), Fox, and the ensemble is never less than remarkable. And the performances of the 28-member ensemble are committed and brave; some of the standouts include Schmitz, as one of the characters who frames the evening; Pablo Ribot as the show's fitful narrator; Alluli, who performs some of the most physical stunts in the piece with real grace; Sauda Jackson, a warm presence in a variety of roles, including a lady bricklayer; and Maria McConville, who, among other duties, gets to dive into the vat of tomatoes and squish them with her feet.
Limitless Joy, after last year's excellent Expense of Spirit, provides more evidence of Josh Fox and International WOW's exciting vision of what theatre can be and do; it's also marked, somewhat, by the excess that comes with success. Everybody in the room—artists and audience members alike—can learn something from the astonishing array of stagecraft on view here.