bauhaus the bauhaus
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 23, 2009
One of the key ideas of the Bauhaus movement was to bring together all of the various arts within a single school, and to combine the teaching of art with the teaching of the underlying scientific/technical skills required to effectuate particular art projects. The Nerve Tank's new performance piece at the Brooklyn Lyceum, bauhaus the bauhaus, certainly illustrates some of these ideas: thematically, it roams through subjects related to art, craft, and the popular culture that often informs/is informed by art; and formatically, it lays bare the nuts and bolts of theatre production so that the audience witnesses not only the art being made but the technical and technological processes necessary to its making. The result is an entertaining and often edifying—if sometimes frustratingly abstract—hour of theatre.
The piece is performed by an ensemble of nine, all but one of whom start out clad in white lab coats, roaming around the space and often puttering with the various objects within it or interacting with one another at moments of "collision." The ninth cast member, Karen Grenke, is dressed in a dark man's suit and, as we enter the theatre, has her back to us; she is standing atop an asymmetrical pyramid that juts out from the rear wall of the space. When the piece begins, she starts to speak: she is portraying Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus movement, and her intermittent appearances throughout the play provide us with interesting background about the ideas of this school.
Most of the play, though, is given over to a series of vignettes—there are 18 in all—in which the other "scientists" engage in various activities. There's a discussion about the nature of chairs at the very beginning; there are multimedia segments using live and prerecorded video footage; there are audio interludes that use found text (one is a reading from the Ikea catalog); and there are scenes/sequences in which the actors engage each other and the audience, such as one entitled "The Gentle Gym" about exercises that stimulate the endocrine system. There's no narrative, and it's not always clear what the individual moments have to do with the piece's overriding themes or even with one another. What is clear is a constant sense of surprise, and of stimulation, both physical and mental. The intent, I believe, is to sort of anthropomorphize the general tenets of the Bauhaus philosophy; author Chance D. Muehleck and director Melanie S. Armer are using the performers as a kind of "palette" to bring these ideas to life on the stage.
Perhaps the most successful and interesting notion in bauhaus the bauhaus is the stripping away of the artifice of art. Ensemble members work the lights and the sound throughout the show, as well as manipulate the set pieces; they also change costume pieces in front of us. All of the technology required to make a work of theatre is thus presented to the audience as just another layer or aspect of the performance.
The actors—in addition to Grenke, they are: V. Orion Delwaterman, Stacia French, Irene Hsi, Anna Konkle, Robin Kurtz, Kevin Lapin, Sandie Luna, and James "Face" Yu—provide interesting and consistent performances. They each take on particular traits (a specific kind of walk; a signature sound or exclamation) and their investment of concentration and energy to sustain them is noteworthy indeed.
I left the play with a bit more awareness of the Bauhaus's ideas, stimulated to learn more about them.