Apocalypsis Cum Figuris and The Constant Prince
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
July 21, 2009
Jerzy Grotowski believed that actors should give themselves as a "total gift" to the audience. By that he meant actors are to pull off their masks of technique and training, behind which they hide, and expose themselves with naked intensity to their audience. The result is a more sincere performance of the actor's mental and physical impulses. In choosing to do these two pieces, NU Classic Theatre is not trying to imitate Grotowski's work (and many would claim that is not possible) but rather to celebrate his philosophy of performance. One thing is for certain, NU Classic Theatre has given a total gift to those fortunate enough to witness their celebration of Grotowski.
The show begins with Apocalypsis Cum Figuris (meaning revelation with form). NU Classic Theatre's homage to this piece finds seven nuns and monks in a crisis of faith who enter into a dialogue with seven Paul Klee angels. Klee's angels are simple, even childlike, line drawings replicated on tall white foam board. The performers interact with them and use them in their intricate movements. The text is a collage of poetry and prose taken from the likes of T.S. Eliot, Franz Kafka, Rumi, and even Lou Reed. Each performer emerges from the group and speaks his or her piece giving it unique physicality and vocal quality.
The show moves seamlessly into The Constant Prince. We are given only a fragment of Calderon de la Barca's 1629 religious drama but that fragment includes the most powerful segments of text spoken all in the original Spanish. A Spanish prince is captured by Moors. While in captivity he develops a relationship with a Moorish princess. A Spanish king offers a Spanish city to the Moors in exchange for the Prince but the Prince chooses martyrdom rather than freedom.
Part of Grotowski's theory of performance includes a stripped-down set. He called it Poor Theatre, as opposed to Rich Theatre which would include costuming, architecture, visual arts, and lighting among other things. So the set for this performance is an open space unimpeded by set pieces. The lights are stark white and kept at one level that never changes. The costumes are plain and black and easy to move in. And move they do!
The ensemble delivers a tight, very well polished performance that is as powerful and evocative as anything I've ever seen. Still it is not so polished that it will strike you as mundane or complacent. There are elements of raw improvised performance throughout the show. The movement is very Twyla Tharp-inspired modern dance with each performer creating a unique movement style for their his or her character. Most of the cast are graduates of Columbia's MFA program and you can see influences of professors such as Kristen Linklater's theories of vocal quality. I was amazed at their ability to sustain a strong and emotional voice while bent over backwards and using only their legs to lift themselves off the ground. Their movements are precise and inclusive all the way down to their fingers and toes.
Their director Nicky Wolcz deserves high praise for his work here. His take on Grotowski is fresh and yet faithful to his theories. There is a perfect balance of discipline and inspiration. Performers that stand out are Susan Hee and Isaac Hirotsu Woofter in Apocalypsis Cum Figuris. But it is Laura Butler and Daniel Irizarry whose work in The Constant Prince is extraordinary. Their chemistry and choreography are magnetic. I found myself completely wrapped up in their voices and movement. Irizarry is an amazingly agile dancer and his delivery of the final monologue is extremely moving even if you don't understand a word of Spanish.
The Undergroundzero Festival has given New York audiences a chance to see some of the most innovative work being produced right now. This show in particular should not be missed.