nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
February 28, 2005
The York Theatre Company’s current musical offering is a Smokey Joe’s Cafe-like revue showcasing the less ubiquitous songs and poems of poet-lyricist-playwright-etc. Kenward Elmslie (with music by a number of composers including Ned Rorem, Claibe Richardson, and Elmslie himself) interrupted by poems and monologues, also by Elmslie. There is a cast of six—three women, two men and one Elmslie. The former five sing and kinda-dance up and down the multi-platformed stage while the latter one sits at a desk stage left and sociably delivers his poems and songs from there. Throughout the show, slides by different visual artists (including Elmslie) are projected against the back of the stage, occasionally bearing the name of the song we’re hearing and what show, if any, it was featured in / cut from. The set has phrases painted all over it such as unusual word combinations like “Dinghy Attitude Estuary” and “Higglety-Piggelty Asteroid.”
Lingo is unintelligible, unfamiliar, or specialized language; the selections of Elmslie’s work on display might more accurately fall under the title “Semi-Unusual-Word-Combination-Land.” Now S.U.W.C.’s work well on the page, because the reader can breeze over them, occasionally chuckling at their silliness. Onstage, punctuated by the voices of performers in song or speech, they receive too much attention and seem quite unremarkable because of it.
Elmslie’s lyrics do put unexpected words next to one another, but they do not reveal character or evoke specific emotion. Like his monologues, they are one-joke with the punchline repeated ad infinitum. His one foray into overtly political territory comes at the end of the first act with “Brazil,” which is about the entire Bush administration shirking responsibility and taking off to spend an indefinite amount of time in said eponymous country. (The animation in the background by Julio Soler is what gets all the laughs, but even that is innocuous compared to certain sequences in, say, Fahrenheit 9/11, or the scathing political cartoons and commercials that played during the election season last year.)
Many of his poems are “wan-humorous” (lingo mine) elegies for dead lovers and friends. However, the words did not personalize these individuals for me nor did the pictures of them, projected onto the back of the stage. I did not understand why the loss of them should seem extraordinary to me; I was fundamentally sad, but not in the least entertained or moved, and I felt as though I was at a memorial service for someone I don’t know.
The other performers, I think, felt something similar. Across the board, they delivered their songs with muscle and good technique, but for the most part without mind and heart. “Chain of Love” from The Grass Harp as performed by Jeanne Lehman is the closest thing to a showstopper the evening offers, and the credit is due to her charisma and gorgeous voice.
I do not deny that Elmslie’s oeuvre may deserve to be celebrated, but I do not believe this is the best way of going about it. Perhaps a cd, a one-night-only concert, a book of poems and lyrics, I don’t know. An evening in Lingoland is light, but so are W-2’s. I found myself uninvolved and preoccupied with my own worries. There is theatre out there that is engaging enough to distract you from your everyday problems and substantive enough to help you with those more existential ones. Go to our homepage, click on “nytheatre picks” and have a look.