nytheatre.com review by Tim Cusack
September 8, 2007
Never really starting and not quite finishing (at least by the accepted rules of traditional musical theatre), Removable Parts exists in a pleasantly odd alt world of nonperformance. Resolutely indeterminate in every aspect (or perhaps I should say determinedly unresolved), Corey Dargel's staged song cycle resists the standard dramaturgical topography of rising action, crisis event, and final restoration to some semblance of order. And while Dargel's delivery of his own material is blessedly free of the Broadway performer's need to "put over" a song, it also lacks said performer's ability to find variety and points of emphasis in a song's lyrics, not to mention the knack of connecting with an audience. Add to that songs that drone on in a pleasingly post-minimalist vein with nary a climax to be discerned, and you end up with an evening of music that certainly isn't dull, but that's not entirely engaging either. Like a sojourn on Central Park Lake, once you accept that you're not really going to get anywhere, you can sit back and let the artificial wilderness drift by, secure in the knowledge that nothing you experience is going to upset that lovely lunch you just enjoyed at the boathouse's restaurant.
Dargel has taken as his subject the phenomenon of people who desire to radically alter their bodies through the amputation of body parts. Each song in the hour-long work focuses on a particular appendage: leg, toes, hands, penis, etc. At first glance, the material would seem a bizarre subject for what is, in effect, an elaborate cabaret act, but upon further reflection, it becomes clear that Dargel is merely choosing to deal with the most extreme example of what seems to be a pervasive cultural obsession. Plastic surgery, sex changes, baroque tattooing, male member enlargement—the urge towards body modification is everywhere, and billion-dollar industries have emerged to satisfy these desires. But the person with asomatognosias, or a mismatched internal sense of their body versus its external reality, must accept that no ethical doctor will knowingly amputate a limb unless medically necessary. Scratch that. No doctor who ever wants to practice medicine anywhere in human civilization would hack off any part of the human body just because someone with, say, a pirate fetish, fantasizes about actually turning themselves into Long John Silver or Captain Hook.
So that leaves amputee wannabes (the subculture's own term for themselves) with a dilemma: unable to actually fulfill their fantasies, they invent elaborate rituals designed to induce liminal states of pretend limbless-ness, or in the most extreme cases of the disorder, actually engage in self-harming acts, like immolation, that then require a hand or foot to be severed.
All of this has rich metaphoric potential. The confusing part (and I suspect the reason the evening never quite takes off) is that it seems everyone involved has chosen a different metaphor to extricate from the material. For Dargel the songwriter, the awkwardness of prosthetic limbs, the fetishistic obsession with specific body parts, and the fantasies of submission and domination inherent within the amputation narrative become a way to talk about romantic obsessions of all kinds and the power dynamics within any love affair. For Dargel the playwright, the urge to disconnect parts of our own selves, even to the point of self-violence, mirrors our disconnection from the others around us, as evidenced by the often-hilarious passive-aggressive crosstalk he and his accompanist Kathleen Supové engage in with each other. Meanwhile Emma Griffin, a director of dependable inventiveness, seems far more inspired by the notion that it is impossible for an amputee wannabe to ever actually achieve their desires, which leads her to craft a staging of false starts, misplaced lighting cues, and switched-off mics. While evocative of the maddening position all directors find themselves in (the actual performance event never, ever looks like what you imagined in your head), this strategy ultimately doesn't help secure the material to a recognizable spine.
The net effect of all of these disparate approaches is for them to cancel each other out in a sort of metaphoric white noise, leaving a lot of unanswered questions: When Dargel wanders on at the beginning of the piece, telling us that he "read hundreds of blogs" looking for "amputees with a well-defined character and a story to tell" setting up the expectation of a series of character studies, and then proceeds to sing songs that are mostly written from his own point of view, is that intentional or an oversight? Why on earth do he and Supové goofily dance together at points, when we've been watching her be openly hostile to him the entire performance? And are the Robert Wilson-esque gestures Dargel sometimes employs meant to be taken seriously or as a parody of postmodern performance?
Which isn't to say that there aren't some terrific songs that shine through the fog of mixed intentions. Someone send "Castration" to Peter Rauhofer for a club remix RIGHT NOW (I want to be on the dance floor of Stereo the Saturday night that shit hits the fan, or the fans—cracked-out heads WILL explode), and "Everybody Wannabe" is almost unbearably poignant as Dargel lip-synchs the words "It's better for me this way / To be unable to speak at all / Because it's always been so hard for me to say Good-bye," his voice distorted by the electronic device people with tracheotomies use to communicate.
One is tempted to say that Dargel should have just sung his songs without trying to make a theatre piece out of them, but that would have derived us of the pleasure of Supové's performance. Whether tearing into the piano, politely yet firmly telling Dargel what's wrong with him, or methodically destroying every last piece of sheet music once she's finished with it (most amusingly via shredder), she steals the show. Whether or not what she's doing is "avant-garde," it's the type of fierce art I'll always happily sit through. Never cut off, she's the hands and heart and fierce intellect of the piece.