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Devise and Conquer 

A Mugwumpin double bill offers a lesson in not taking oneself too seriously

Wednesday, Feb 8 2006
"Devised" is a dirty word for many theatergoers. The notion of performance as existing without a written text and a single author is by no means a new one: The reputations of such venerable institutions as London's Complicite, New York's Wooster Group, and the Parisian Théâtre du Soleil, as well as those of directors like Robert Lepage, Robert Wilson, and San Francisco's own Liebe Wetzel, have long rested upon an ability to conjure spellbinding theater out of everything from farmyard noises to the weather report. Yet for some reason, works woven together from fragments of mime, dance, or honking noises made while waving the flag of the Principality of Liechtenstein don't tend to attract mass audiences.

In some ways, the stigma attached to devised performance -- that is, a production typically created by multiple collaborators and developed out of visual or aural images, gestures, and symbols rather than through the realization of a specific play-script -- is deserved. There have been occasions (sadly, too numerous to recount) when the self-conscious and rampantly incoherent antics onstage have driven me to a near-desperate state. When the creators are so immersed in their own "process" that they seem to forget that they're performing in front of a paying audience, I'm hit with a powerful urge to run out screaming or even kill someone.

On the other hand, by refuting linear progression, climax, character development, and the various other components of the traditional "well-made play," the best of devised theater is capable of moving the viewer in ways that conventional dramas rarely do. Indeed, I've been tipped upside down and vigorously shaken by many devised productions. (In Moscow at a production of Anatoly Vassilyev's The Lamentations of Jeremiah, for instance, the actors literally hypnotized members of the audience, me included, by chanting liturgical verses in Old Russian. That's another story, but the example should give an idea of the powerful possibilities of this type of theater.)

A double bill of works created by Mugwumpin, a young company newly in residence at the Exit Theatre, perfectly demonstrates just how magical -- and how torturous -- an evening of devised theater can be. Both productions in the program, Symphony of Frogs and Your Nightgown Is Jealous When You Dream, explore the theme of human relationships. But while the former captured something of the amnesia associated with falling in and out of love with playful and imaginative theatricality, the latter left me jealously hankering for my nightgown and dreaming of bed.

Symphony mixes mime, commedia dell'arte-inspired humor, object theater, and live piano and accordion music to tell the story of an archetypal couple caught up in an endless cycle of breaking up and making up. Conceived by and starring Yuval Boim and Denmo Ibrahim, along with Leda Lum, Joseph Estlack, and musician Roman Kosins, the piece plays with various realistic and idealistic moments in a relationship. In one ultranaturalistic bit, the central couple, Paul (Boim) and Constance (Ibrahim), fight as the actors thump the furniture about the stage. In another, we feel like we're watching a courtship sequence in a black-and-white movie: Constance spots Paul kneading dough behind the frosted glass of a bakery window, and in the next sickly-sweet scene, they're picnicking together and zooming through the countryside, he on his noisy motorcycle and she in the sidecar.

Images, sounds, and gestures collide wildly throughout the work, as if in a dream. One minute cast members are acting out a rhythmic physical theater piece in slow motion, like something out of a Bill Viola installation, and the next, they're barking at each other in purposefully ill-fitting fat suits, thrift-store wigs, and fake mustaches -- vaudeville comedians pushed to grotesque extremes. The moments of stillness provide a somber and sonorous core from which the mantra "Nothing ever changes. It always stays the same" ripples outward. But it's the humor that makes Symphony sing. From the smug Casanova showing off to his sweetheart by elaborately tracing her name in cigarette smoke in the air to an old drag queen removing a telephone from the ratty curls of her hair, Boim, Ibrahim, and their cohorts delve beneath the surface of human experience without -- and this is a crucial lesson for life in general and theater in particular -- taking themselves too seriously.

If the second half of the program could learn one thing from the first, it's to embrace this precious sense of humor. For Nightgown -- which revolves around the relationship between a musician, his girlfriend, and his phantom muse, and is adapted from a 17th-century Chinese ghost story ("Huan Niang and Her Lute Master" from Pu Songling's Tales of Liaozhai) -- feels laborious and self-important. What begins intriguingly enough, with the eerie sound of air being blown gently over glass bottles in the dark, soon collapses into a rambling recital of uninspiring songs (composed in most cases by Christopher W. White and performed by White and fellow actor Maiya Murphy) interspersed with complicated and superfluous lighting effects and long patches of shuffling darkness.

White and Murphy -- as the musician, Henry, and the ghost/girlfriend, May/ Phyllis -- struggle to keep up with the constant changes in lighting (which include everything from blinding neon strips to tiny blue penlights). Murphy has an even harder time switching between characters. Besides looking like she has a serious case of bipolar disorder, Murphy's insipid Phyllis, with her "little girl lost" eyes, breathy voice, and mincing steps, is difficult to watch. The two actors aren't bad instrumentalists and singers, but they, together with director Jyana S. Gregory, haven't found a satisfactory way of incorporating the songs into the fabric of the storytelling. As a result, this overearnest production gives the impression of being more about showcasing the musical skills of the performers than about delivering a theatrical experience.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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