nytheatre.com review by Russell M. Kaplan
September 12, 2008
Anyone looking to find "downtown theatre" at it most representative—magic, warts, and all—need look no further than Atomic City, an abstract, intellectual, and occasionally visceral piece of dance theatre on display at La MaMa. With grandiose ambitions and a collaboration that has spanned the Atlantic ocean, this is a piece that is determined to stuff in all of its ideas and make them work, and often succeeds. It's both a poster child for the thrill of collaborative art, and a warning about what happens with too many cooks in the kitchen.
The show—a collaboration between American director/choreographer Jon Morris and Danish theatre company Terra Nova—begins with a bold reversal of theatrical norms that immediately demands attention. Before they ever reach their seats, the audience is led directly onto the set itself (a square bed of AstroTurf surrounded by four white paper walls) to observe a brief and intense monologue performed in the midst of the crowd. Once directed to our seats, we observe the story from the more traditional vantage point. What follows is basically an "Atomic Family" rendition of Romeo and Juliet, depicting tension and feuding between neighbors in a paranoia-driven World War II-era suburb. The ensemble, which hails from five different countries, truly takes their multi-tasking to heart, aiming for a "total theatre" experience that combines song, dance, text, acrobatics, and live musical performance. It's an admirable fusion, which unfortunately never quite lives up to the potential of that boundary-breaking first moment.
Atomic City is always at its best when it sticks to its core vocabulary of striking visuals, which abound throughout. The dancer/actors possess a wonderful synergy and a knack for creating striking stage pictures, either on their own or with the aid of a few well-chosen props (most notably a couple of long flexible "paper walls" that are manipulated throughout). Christian Wassmann's simple set creates a perfect platform for the action that is both evocative and flexible, and Felix Grimm's lighting always works in harmonious service to the imagery.
Regrettably, the success of the visual element is repeatedly undermined by the aural. The non-linear text has not been properly digested by the cast, who are clearly more comfortable with their bodies than their speaking or singing voices (the language barrier seemed to be a problem in a couple of cases). As a result the words get in the way more often than they help. And the original folk-jazz score, played by members of the cast, is well-written, but performed awkwardly—with the exception of stellar saxophonist Nis Bäckvall—and out of tune. The solid sound design, fortunately, goes a long way in holding the show together.
In the end, Atomic City's ambitions prove to be both its greatest strength and the thorn in its side. The company's idea of collaborative theatre is seemingly to get everyone to do a little of everything, not simply to play to their natural strengths. The result is a piece in which the big picture shines through, but the little things often suffer from clumsy execution. With greater attention to detail, Atomic City might be a moving and provocative piece. At present it's very beautiful, it just stumbles too often to reach that point.