nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
December 6, 2007
Nature Theatre of Oklahoma's production of No Dice, now playing at a former indoor playground located at 66 White Street and presented by Soho Rep, is billed as a four-hour version of an eleven-hour epic and has been described by its creators as a "melodramatic take on amateur theatre." With all due respect to Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, the directors and arrangers of this outstanding theatrical event, I am happy to report that the performance I saw clocked in at a mere three and a half hours and I would have stayed for the entire eleven. I am also happy to report that the play resembled dinner theatre the way a bunch of grapes resemble a tub of pudding. Or a bag of M&M's resembles a ham and cheese sandwich. (Go see the play; you'll understand.)
Be forewarned though: There are several novelties at the heart of the No Dice—from the sandwiches they serve to the use of the space to the construction of the costumes to the iPods the actors utilize throughout the show—and they take some getting used to. I spent the first 70 minutes of the production wishing I were somewhere else.
These novelties begin with the text, which is, according to the company's press packet, "culled from over 100 hours of taped television conversations with actors, friends, and family about their jobs, personal problems, aspirations, and dreams," and comes across as rambling, nonsensical banter. The characters talk around topics without actually saying anything about them or listening to each other.
They continue with the central characters' costumes, which look thrown together without purpose (one male character wears a cowboy hat and a fake mustache, which is constantly in danger of falling off; another enters wearing a pirate hat, black glasses, and Chasidic payess; one female character, dressed entirely in black, dons a grayish Victorian wig and sunglasses; another man wears a black cape and a headband with bat ears on it), and the actors' gestures, which have nothing to do with the words they are saying; and end with their accents and physicality, which they pick up and drop off as they please.
It felt as if Liska, Copper, and company had taken all the traditional elements of theatre and thrown them at the stage without a care as to where they fell or to what purpose. It was difficult distinguishing between what was real and what was fake, what was planned and what was spiraling out of control. They had proposed a world that seemed like frail and insubstantial theatrical space that was just one missed line away from falling apart. I wasn't sure I could take two and half hours more.
Things begin to change with the entrance of a woman in a green dress and feathers in her hair. Played by Kelly Copper, she uses the same half-sentences and stilted rhythms of the others, but her performance is grounded as she speaks of her dream of entering the stage like a "Major Diva," her love of performance, and the thrill she gets from feeling expectation. Her body remains still throughout the monologue and the other actors are frozen in the positions they were in when she arrived. She is warm and curious and expressive. It is the play's first substantial moment and it acts as a catalyst, allowing the other actors to relax and take charge of their roles. It was as if the play's inhabitants had been slaves to the confines of theatrical elements and Copper's speech exposed the truth of their world and set them free. From that moment, we watch the characters put these elements together and it leads to an act-ending dance so exuberant and so revealing, we were all reduced to smiling, surprising, awestruck laughter. The act of witnessing these characters realize their abilities, intentionally or not, was truly phenomenal.
The second act proceeds much as the first but there's a firmer sense of Nature Theatre of Oklahoma turning the theatrical experience inside out; of their having spent the first act taking the theatrical elements apart, reinterpreting their functions, and developing their own vocabulary, for the sole purpose of taking these recorded conversations and exploring the fine lines we balance in everyday interactions.
In one of my favorite scenes in the play, the Cowboy, played with disarming virility by Zachary Oberzan (he should take this as a compliment), begins with a pronunciation of his admiration for Cary Grant and then has an exchange with the Pirate—an unbelievable dexterous Robert M. Johanson—regarding his favorite Hamlets. The scene's content is hilarious (he is Jewish but he chooses Mel Gibson) but the scene resonates because of the care the characters take to explain, listen, and ultimately understand each other. It is also a perfect example of how No Dice uses its specific vocabulary to grant depth and substance to quotidian encounters. It highlights the million and one signals and responses that make up simple interactions and infuses them with a courage and dignity we often take for granted.
The play is full of such moments. Anne Gridley's striptease and subsequent confessional is both comical and heartbreaking; Kristen Worrall's appearance in the dance at the end of the first act is a small miracle of timing and rhythm; and Thomas Hummel does some surprising furious beat-boxing.
My one misgiving came at the end, when the show abandons its hard-earned vocabulary and presents the characters to be, well, actors. It's disconcerting because it deflates the sublime tensions the play had carefully built up over the previous three and half hours and jolted me into a state of confusion and disappointment. It's a small matter—and maybe a personal one—but I wanted to see these characters through to their end.
But life is not about resolution and the jolt threw into relief the skill with which the company operates. No Dice is a superb show full of surprises and insights.