Great Jones Variations
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
Great Jones Variations is a 75-minute program of original short theatre works of various types that together comprise a thrillingly appropriate homage to Ellen Stewart, the remarkable woman who founded La MaMa E.T.C. and co-founded the Great Jones Repertory Company (with Elizabeth Swados and Andrei Serban). In these five pieces, artists of every stripe who consider themselves "MaMa's babies" give back in the way they and she understand best, by creating adventurous new works that defy categorization but all speak resoundingly from the heart. A note in the program says, "Ellen sees what others pass by. She values what others take for granted. She creates by allowing what she notices in each individual person to inspire her..." If you're not sure what that means—or if, like me, you're a devotee of Stewart and her collaborations with Great Jones Repertory, and already know all of this to be true—then spend some of your Memorial Day Weekend with the La MaMa family and enjoy these Variations.
May 27, 2010
The opening piece, An Appointment in Time, struck me as the most purely beautiful of this quintet. Ozzie Rodriguez, who has worked at La MaMa since the early '70s, devised and directed this multimedia piece, which juxtaposes video footage of various famed La MaMa productions past with a stately, silent choreographed glimpse at what it feels like to be a performer at La MaMa, performed by seven alumni artists. Ching Valdes-Aran does some warmups and then transforms herself into some kind of colossal heroine, costuming herself eloquently in a flowing red silk robe. Eugene the Poogene, Jinwon Lee, Michal Gamily, Sara Galassini, Renouard Gee, and Shigeko Sara Suga similarly drift on and off the stage, sometimes bringing in set pieces or costume racks, sometimes trying on a garment, sometimes posing or rehearsing or performing. The title of this piece is strikingly fitting, as the piece captures in an ineffable way the moment just before and the moment of performance.
The longest item on the bill is Zishan Ugurlu's The House of Atreus: 2:00AM, a modern, stylized, condensed retelling of the famous Greek myth that juxtaposes food and contemporary technologies with the ancient story in a way that may not always feel exactly successful but is constantly arresting and surprising. Michael Lynch, Valois Mickens, and Matthew Nasser play the on-stage Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and Orestes—each shown roused from sleep to waking dreams that reflect their tragic destinies—while Arthur Adair, Ching Valdes-Aran, and George Drance, on the sidelines, speak more traditional renderings of their characters. Kat Yew and Allison Hiroto portray different versions of Iphigenia that figure in the characters' dreams.
George Drance's The Tower of Babel felt, to me, the most like one of Stewart's own Great Jones works, drawing on a famous and timeless source, in this case the story from the Bible of how languages were created, to create an imaginative bit of hybrid theatre that is as much about how to tell stories as it is about the particular tale it is telling. Five actors—Adair, Drance, Nasser, Onni Johnson, and Suga—use movement, music, dance, and words to depict a progression—if that's the right word—from a united community where everyone speaks the same language and understands one another to a fragmented one where, tragically, total connection has become impossible.
Love Cripple, the next piece in the Variations, is a collaboration of Kat Yew, Renouard Gee, and Perry Yung, who both created and performed it. It's the most abstract item on the bill, but it's filled with startling images, perhaps none so thrilling as Yung's creation of a musical instrument right before our eyes.
The final work is Elizabeth Swados's Narcissus, a sly, witty, contemporary take on the classic myth, with Drance portraying a man in love with his own image and definitely turned on by the transformations of that image that are fashioned by three "Narcissusettes" (Galassini, Johnson, and Mickens).
Live musical accompaniment throughout is by Michael Sirotta, Heather Paauwe, Yukio Tsuji, and Richard Cohen, and it sounds wonderful. The lack of pretense, and of amplification, is a pleasure.
The artists who have come together to create this singular evening of theatre come from Brazil, Japan, Italy, Israel, Korea, Colombia, the Philippines, and many other countries in both hemispheres. Bringing together all of these diverse talents and giving them space and voice to tell their stories is one of the most important contributions La MaMa has given our city and our culture. How fitting to celebrate it here in this manner!