The American Living Room
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 5, 2006
I look forward each year to my trips to The American Living Room because I know that I will see theatre that I won't see anywhere else—work that will surprise, startle, challenge, and usually delight, because it's provocative, smart, genre-defying, and barrier-breaking.
This year—and note that the 2006 festival is being held at 3LD's space waaaay downtown instead of HERE's comfy Soho digs (which are undergoing extensive renovation this summer, hence the change in turf)—proved no exception. I attended two evenings of TALR and got to see four short theatre pieces, all of which seem ultra-worthy of continued development and future production.
The happiest surprise for me was Learning to Listen, a quirky dance theatre piece with choreography by Robin Prichard (with "contributions" from Alison Malloy and Emily Cooper). Performed with effortless assurance by Prichard and Malloy, this half-hour-long work breaks down the audience's expectations for dance by (a) not having any music, (b) including lots of dialogue, and (c) offering a fair amount of audience interaction and a sustained level of audience engagement. The last element was, I think, the one that surprised me the most: I've never seen a dance piece where the dancers talk to the audience and ask them questions, let alone one where the questions being asked have to do with how people are responding to the performance. But the whole point of Learning to Listen, as the title tells us, is to try to get people to let down their guard/relax their expectations and, indeed, to listen (i.e., to watch, in the context of dance, and to see) in order to truly understand what's being communicated. The piece, which is both beautiful and fun to experience (and, near its end, undeniably moving), is about how paying attention and acquiring empathy can yield trust and confidence. I enjoyed it a great deal and look forward to seeing more of Prichard's work in the future.
On the same bill with Learning to Listen was Your Negro Tour Guide, a solo performance by Torie Wiggins, directed by Jeff Griffin, and adapted by Wiggins and Griffin from some of the writings of NPR commentator Kathy Y. Wilson. The subject here is the always resonant one of racial politics, as Wiggins impersonates a variety of black characters/archetypes to examine African American identity and explore the American racial divide. Some of the pieces tear down constructs and stereotypes in thought-provoking ways, while others (such as a series of spoken word segments built around a "You have/We have" framework—e.g., "You have Martin Luther King, Jr. / We have Malcolm X") seem bent on perpetuating the perceived differences that keep black and white in America apart. This dichotomy, which isn't explicitly explained, makes the show somewhat confusing with regard to its ultimate intent. The issues here certainly deserve airing; but a more strongly stated sense of purpose is needed: I left the show thinking that Wiggins needs to do more than just give the world another performance art piece if she wants to do something about the problems she's identified in her play. As it stands, Your Negro Tour Guide feels too much like just another performance art piece, applying techniques that seem to be de rigueur for the solo show form nowadays, and often doing so only indifferently. Wiggins in particular needs to work on differentiating her characters, who here all seemed very much to be a single person instead of the medley of disparate personalities and voices that they aspire to be.
A return trip a couple of days later exposed me to new works by playwrights and directors I am familiar with. Well, "new" may not be precisely accurate in one case: The Dorothy Building, by Trav S.D., was in fact written almost 20 years ago, and its feel—a fascinating blend of Ionescoan absurdism with hardcore sci-fi—may be somewhat jolting to those familiar with Mr. S.D.'s antic vaudevillian shows/persona. Directed by Michael Scott-Price and performed with precision by a cast of five, The Dorothy Building is a real find, introducing us to a strange, eerie place (an apartment house? an institution of some kind?) where everybody is named Dorothy and, as we discover, to which all of its denizens have been brought for reasons of a cosmic nature. Funny and spooky and always off-kilter, it's a weird study of conformity and bureaucracy; more fundamentally, it's just a compelling yarn, neatly told. The actors here are George Trahanis, Rich Renner, Nathasha Uspensky, Georgiana Avram, and Maggie Cino. Kudos to the crackerjack design team, who made this performance feel much more polished than one might expect in the TALR lab setting: Kevin Dodd (sound), Joyce Liao (lighting), Renee Mariotti (costumes), and Scott-Price himself (set).
Kevin Doyle's Fo(x)y Friends, which preceded The Dorothy Building on the bill, is a nifty work-in-progress that, with development, has the potential to evolve into a splendidly astute satire of our media culture. Inspired by a recent advertising campaign, the show introduces us to four members of the Fox & Friends news team and blends their vapid "reporting" with scurrilous (and possibly actionable) depictions of what they're really thinking. Doyle also directs the piece, and in its second half, where the anchors say their inner thoughts while behaving as if they are in front of the TV cameras, he achieves a brilliance in deconstruction. Laura Adams (E.D. Hill), Varick Boyd (Julian Phillips), Scott Miller (Steve Doocy), and Chris Gentile (Brian Kilmeade) comprise the cast, with Adams taking acting honors for a dead-on portrayal of a bland, blonde sellout (possibly the most dangerous kind).
You will not be able to see any of the shows reviewed here if you head down to the Living Room in the next few weeks, as the bill changes every other night or so—but there are still dozens of eclectic offerings scheduled for the upcoming weeks. What you can be sure of is work that's unusual and independent and that has been developed with loving care. Oh, and there are a few comfortable sofas and couches in the front rows of the seating area, so arrive early and watch this challenging theatre from as relaxed a position as I know of in downtown theatre.