This year's innovations in theater

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One more bit of reflection before we go. This time on theater. I have talked at length about my favorite show, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. And I have plumbed (some of) the depths (briefly) of Bamuthi Joseph's incredible hip-hop play, the break/s. Others in need of discussion are The Cody Rivers Show, a Piccolo Fringe event, and the lone puppet theater offering this year, The Great War, by the Dutch theater collective Hotel Modern.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Created by London theater company 1927, Devil is a melange of 20th-century styles — silent film, pantomime, Gothic horror, stop-action animation — that is wholly of our time. It draws from the absurdist tradition of Beckett and Ionesco and the surreal frights of Kubrick (they love The Shining) and Lynch (They love Eraserhead, too; in fact, animator Paul Barritt thinks it's hilarious). Most of all it feels new — the settings, the sensibilities, the ironies. And it's funny. That is, until it's not anymore, which is when the depth of Devil takes on a whole new unpredictable dimension. It's easily my top choice as best of the festival. 1927's run was far too short. I hope the group returns in Spoleto seasons to come.

the break/s

Another too-short run was Joseph's the break/s. It's innovation was putting hip-hop into a theatrical setting. A DJ, MC, and drum kit accompanied Joseph's touching monologue about his search for a singular identity amid forces that aim to choose identity for him. Joseph taps into the intellectual tradition of W.E.B. Du Bois while coming to terms with the righteous anger of Chuck D. the break/s also featured video footage of interviews on themes Joseph discusses.

Sadly, video weakened the show. It detracted from Joseph's fine dancing. His strength is his poetry and psychological sophistication: He's able to evoke empathy without evoking pity. He never casts himself in the light of a victim, making his dream of finding himself feel like a heroic aspiration. When he solves problems of integrating video into his show, Joseph will achieve a new level of synthesis — a portrayal of a uniquely American experience (i.e., Du Bois' "double consciousness") without succumbing to the fatalism of a uniquely American tragedy (i.e., slavery, Jim Crow, white supremacy, et al.)

The Cody Rivers Show

This was a Piccolo Fringe production, a return engagement from last year. Those who saw the show at Theatre 99 probably have had a hard time explaining what it is — or what it's about. It's not improv. It's not sketch comedy. Comedy comes first and foremost. The ultimate goal for Mike Mathieu and Andrew Connor is to make you laugh. How we get to that goal, though, is where the innovation is.

You might call it comic theater of sweat. "Comic," because it's about comedy. "Theater," because it uses those conventions: setting, character, time, motivation, narrative arc. The settings are vignettes, ambiguous and smart. The characters are more like caricatures. Simple but emotional motivations. These bleed into a narrative arc. One situation spills into another until they come full circle.

I say "sweat" because the show is physical. Mathieu and Connor sweat a lot. Movement and the comic opportunities that stem from movement are integral to The Cody Rivers Show. Mathieu and Connor each have backgrounds in dance. Connor told that he and Mathieu think in terms of movement — the concepts they conjure up, the directions they go in, and the conclusions they come to are often inspired by the kinds of movement they choose to exploit.

For instance, their "Face-to-Face Theater" bit. The movement is running, but it looks like it's in slow-motion. They contrast the slow movement with soft squeaky voices, as if being fast-forwarded on a cassette tape. Combine this with a question mark and exclamation point painted on their faces, and you have an ambiguous setting that keep the audience off balance — a great opportunity for comedy.

In "Face-to-Face Theater," they are theatricals believing they have pioneered a whole new kind of theater. They pick an audience member — you were screwed if you were in the front row — and give that person all of their attention: the movement, the earnest faces, the questions and exclamations. It's so socially awkward that you're compelled to laugh. It's so damned goofy, you're compelled to laugh.

Like the rest of the show, it makes no sense. They're not trying to make sense. It's absurd (though it's never creepy and scary like Devil). And that's partly why it's funny. We in the audience rush to fill in the spaces that make no sense. Then at some point down the line, it starts to make (a kind of) absurd sense. In the meantime, we give up control of our imaginations to these brilliant comic innovators.

The Great War

At one point in Hotel Modern's puppet theater production, calamities ensue on a huge scale. Mass death raised the tension so high I wasn't aware of it. Mustard gas was spilling over the trenches in No Man's Land and killing French soldiers by the legion. They could wear gas masks to protect themselves, but the Germans had mixed another chemical in with the mustard gas that made their targets vomit. They'd puke into their masks and asphyxiate. Then there's the narration of a letter by a French soldier named Prospere. Such terror in his voice. The tension was high, that is, until I saw a huge human hand.

It was that of Herman Helle, a co-founder of Hotel Modern. He was changing the scene in his miniature tableau of the Western Front during World War I. As he did, the image of his hand and the scene he was manipulating was projected onto a large movie screen in front of the audience. I was surprised by how intense the feeling of relief was. Seeing his hand, seeing the architect of his artifice, was a welcomed reminder that what I was watching wasn't real. That is was once real, but is not any longer.

Relief then turned to a flash of despair. On the movie screen, the audience could see Helle taking his puppets — really, green and gray plastic toy soldiers of the kind any boy would play with — and laying them down in the mud. The hand poured a green slime over them. The hand pushed them further into the muck. Then the hand left them there and they lingered between the frames of the big screen. It was as if we were witnessing these faceless, nameless bodies decomposing in time.

There was nothing we could do. Such is the power of puppet theater. It was dramatic reminder of how chaotic the world was for these young men. Why have hope? When the hand of God is as work, what is there to do? When the hand of God instructs you to die, you die. There's no way to capture what these troglodytes felt like, but Hotel Modern provided an affecting facsimile.

The entire effect of The Great War was tension — between the artifice and the creation of the artifice, between scales large and small, between the fact that these were toys, really, and the fact that they had the feeling of experiencing something horrible.

I was told later that war is still a very personal thing to the Dutch. They experienced war as soldiers or civilians. They passed down stories to their children and grandchildren. War and its collateral damage is no mere abstraction. It's intimate, which is abundantly evident in this innovative theater production.

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