William Shatner managed to fit a lot more than just “Star Trek” anecdotes into his did-that-actually-happen? Broadway solo show in 2012. But the epistemological underpinnings of art, science and contemporary civilization were somehow left underdeveloped amid the talk of Ben Folds and “T. J. Hooker.”
Leave it to the director Phil Soltanoff to pick up the slack in “An Evening With William Shatner Asterisk,” an unlikely early highlight of this year’s Coil festival.
The title subject himself may have sat this one out — even an octogenarian as active as Mr. Shatner needs a break now and then — but the very patient Mr. Soltanoff has dug up the next-best thing. Make that the nearly 6,000 next-best things: every existing piece of Captain Kirk audio and video from the original “Star Trek” series.
These bits have been sifted through and cobbled together — word by word, sometimes syllable by syllable — to widen the captain’s conversational repertoire, which Mr. Soltanoff and his systems designer, Rob Ramirez, present on a mobile video screen. (Two larger screens on either side of the New Ohio Theater stage provide supertitles.) So what if they need to slam together several disparate snippets to make Mr. Shatner actually say “epistemological”? If that’s what it takes to beam us up to a higher level of consciousness, so be it.
The juxtaposition of Kirk’s strenuously virile utterances with Joe Diebes’s highfalutin text may sound like a one-joke concept, but Mr. Soltanoff continually, deliciously alters the tempos, cadences and presentation. (A deadpan performer named Mari Akita periodically wheels the monitor around the space, her relentless efficiency counterbalancing her subject’s bluster.) The trademark Shatner pauses may be digitally created here, but they’re no less irresistible.
As “An Evening With William Shatner Asterisk” winds down, we learn that the very constructs Captain Kirk has promised to elucidate — good versus evil, savagery versus civilization — have been rendered indescribable by the time the Enterprise makes its rounds. Intelligibility, it appears, was the real final frontier.
Is this fair? Is this moral? It will take another sage to help us make sense of these notions. Hey, what about that wacky Denny Crane lawyer guy from “Boston Legal”? Is he available?
COIL, the multidisciplinary festival of PS 122, takes an expansive view of performance...
The prize for abstraction, however, would have to go to An Evening With William Shatner Asterisk, an amusing provocation conceived and directed by Phil Soltanoff. Soltanoff has digitized recordings of the dialogue uttered by Shatner throughout Star Trek, broken down word by word. Manipulating those video archives through a computer system, Shatner — or is it his character, the handsome and authoritative Captain Kirk? — now offers a video lecture on science and aesthetics. (The text is by Joe Diebes.) "You. Could. Call. It. A. Transmission. About. The. Future," he begins, each word a fragment cut from the series.
Shatner goes on to contrast being and nonbeing, inner and external life, and he fixates on "savage people who don't make art." Soltanoff knows when to mix up the pace, occasionally introducing a live performer, and strategically cutting away to a scene of Kirk and his posse on an alien planet fending off bow-and-arrow–slinging primitives, so that Shatner can endorse, then back away from, the idea of colonization. "That. Was. Just. A. Joke," the square-jawed captain tells us at the end — but there's a small mountain of ironies to savor about making art about science.
This context heightened the urgency folded into Muazzez's extraterrestrial transmission. And there were other, comparable transmissions, including one from the future, articulated in the person and voice of TV's Captain Kirk. Co-presented by COIL and the New Ohio Theatre, An Evening with William Shatner Asterisk takes place on a stage inhabited by a central flat screen TV on wheels and two larger screens on either side. Onto the center screen comes the iconic image of TV's starship commander and over-actor par excellence.
Suddenly he speaks — in a funny but vaguely disconcerting stagger of assembled speech bites, culled from the character's entire lexicon, the actor's "body" of work. The captain has been commandeered. Someone or something else from beyond (beyond this time and beyond language) is speaking to us through him. The transmission, spelled out on the far screens, comes in segments or "chapters," and has a philosophical cast: a discussion of the differences between art and science. Its purpose, we are told, is to convey a message to us from the future, which alone knows where we are headed. The message itself (the beautifully written text is by Joe Diebes; the excellent audio-visual scheme by Rob Ramirez) is prefaced and forestalled, in a half-teasing fashion, by a discussion of some basic terms.
The performance's sole human figure, meanwhile — other than two-dimensional James T. — is an expressionless Japanese woman (an imposingly restrained Mari Akita) who moves the wheeled screen slowly about the stage, illustrates a point or two with a few simple movements, and, in one deceptively incongruous moment, picks up a microphone to deliver (in subtitled Japanese) a monologue about coming to the United States and falling obsessively into the world of drag queens and female impersonation.
Hilarious yet eerie, playful yet purposeful, oblique yet precise, conceiver-director Phil Soltanoff's An Evening with William Shatner Asterisk proved a dialectical delight; and in its teasing manner and final indirect plea for some small but profound transcendence, it was, pardon the expression, fascinating.
January in New York is an incredibly busy time for performance lovers... Two of the pieces I saw, Bronx Gothic and Shatner, stood out for their sheer originality and integrity. Both successfully created new live art forms to house their content and offered tour de force solo performances: one by the virtuosic and fearless Okpokwasili (Bronx Gothic) and the other by a reconstructed frame-by-frame Captain Kirk who lectured us on art and science. For An Evening with William Shatner Asterisk, written by Joe Diebes with systems design by Rob Ramirez, Soltanoff catalogued every single word Shatner ever said on the original Star Trek series and then, along with his collaborators, re-positioned the phrases and shots so that together they would amount to telling us something compelling about the nature of art and the nature of science. They create a moving TV puppet, with hundreds (or so it seems) of Shatner’s utterings, manipulated with ultimate grace by a figure in a black suit played by Mari Akita. The result is surprisingly human, humorous, and evocative. The more we engage with this incredibly alienating creature, the more he begins to unveil rather deep and honest truths about what art is and why it matters, especially because it never takes itself too seriously with phrases like: “Art is the unexpected experience of a phenomenon” and “Art happens in the present because it doesn’t know it’s going to happen.” Of course, you have to imagine a pause between words and syllables, the digitalized voice of Shatner speaking, and a different frame for every word uttered. It is a manifesto of sorts where the marriage of form and content come together beautifully -
An Evening with William Shatner Asterisk and Bronx Gothic, each in their own way, embodied the qualities these festivals aspire to: developing compelling, original artist’s voices that in turn create new and engaging forms of live art, which before January, I did not even dream existed. I can only hope that a boomerang effect takes place, where such compelling forms of devising performance not only proliferate in festivals, but are also taught at the undergraduate level in conservatory and training theater programs around this country. What are we waiting for? Better times?
Two large stationary screens and one smaller screen mounted on a wheeled, human sized cart rest on the stage at the beginning of An Evening With William Shatner Asterisk at Fusebox Festival. A woman in an oversized suit sits quietly on a chair upstage. A large white square tapes off the stage. Static fills the screens and what sounds like a sped up heartbeat fills the room.
William Shatner’s name is in the title, but it’s Captain James T. Kirk who emerges from the static. Here is his handsome, noble face on the screen. It’s important that it’s Kirk instead of Shatner because Kirk is a trustworthy emissary, a character who represents a certain kind of integrity and passion. It’s the Captain, on the deck of his ship, before Shatner went on his journey to irrelevance and back again. He tells us he is here from the future to talk to us about science and art
“Talk” isn’t quite right. Every single word Kirk says was isolated as a single video frame from the Star Trek series and then strung back together to form new sequences of audio/visual sentences. It’s not Captain Kirk talking to us smoothly from the screen, it’s a collection of images and sounds that have been put together to convey an idea.
He says, “It may be a bit confusing at first,” which sounds more like, “it MAY be CONfusing AT first,” and the audience laughs because the video’s chopped up monologue does not resemble human speech rhythms in the slightest. It does not even sound like Shatner’s signature rhythmic strangeness. While the words are all there in the right order, they’re plucked from other pieces of dialogue and can be so jarring put back together that they cease to make much sense to the ear.
The creators must have realized this because the two large screens on either side provide helpful subtitles. At times the written words, the images and the audio can be too much to process all at once. Toward the end of the piece, the subtitles disappear and it’s almost a relief to just listen and watch without them.
The Fusebox website describes this creation as a puppet, but it might be more accurate to call it an oracle. A puppet implies that it’s being manipulated in the moment, but everything the video does was obviously constructed and assembled ahead of time. The one live actor adds a spontaneous physical layer to the performance by wheeling the video cart around the stage throughout the performance; the video itself, however, feels very static. Even when Video Kirk toys with the audience’s expectations, it’s a premeditated moment.
While ostensibly, Video Kirk is explaining art and science, the theme he comes back to again and again is binary categorization. In five sections, he attempts to lay out the difference between art and science, savage and civilized, expected and unexpected, and life and death. Since each is defined by the other, the explanations become convoluted, repetitive explorations of concepts that cease to make sense the more they’re dissected: “Art is art because not everybody understands art.”
The video pauses about halfway through and the actor begins to speak into a microphone. Any relief at hearing a live human voice is short-lived, however, because she’s speaking in Japanese and also gets subtitles. She talks about moving to Austin as a student and becoming interested in drag queen culture. She explored being a man dressed as a woman and as she says, “People wouldn’t talk to me until they knew what I was.” They needed the comfort of fitting her into a gender binary.
This piece tries to pick apart the notion of the self by creating a “self” out of assorted clips that philosophize that the self is actually a set of patterns. Put enough patterns together and we construe a personality. Indeed, by the end of the piece, Video Kirk seems to have a personality of his own even if he doesn’t feel remotely human.
In the grand finale, the section where Video Kirk is supposed to lay it all out for us, he instead pleads difficulty by saying that there are no words for what he needs to tell us. These binary concepts don’t exist in the future so how can he possibly explain what’s replaced them? This could feel like a cop-out until you consider that if you traveled five hundred years back in time, how would you explain twenty-first century philosophical ideas of the self to a culture that had no frame of reference for them?
The experience of watching An Evening With William Shatner Asterisk can be exhausting, but it’s also exhilarating to see the medium exemplify its own message so perfectly. Phil Soltanoff (director), Rob Ramirez (systems designer), and Joe Diebes (writer) have created a rich thought piece unafraid to tackle large philosophical questions while also gently mocking its own attempts to unravel them. Underneath all of the layers of technology lies a very human frustration with the inarticulateness of language and the vagaries of defining the human existence.
Engaging story telling matched with innovative low-tech but high-concept special effects.
That pretty much sums up LA Party, a 40 minute Spalding Grayish monolog delivered with zest by the entire cast and crew. A skilled narrator, an attentive camera person, a guy laying on the floor, a minimalist keyboardist, and a woman sitting in a chair with duct tape covering her eyes and mouth all work together to tell the story of one man’s fall from monastic-vegan/raw-food-purity into a night of drug induced hedonism and guacamole consumption.
The text alone is entertaining enough, one of our favorite punchlines was the girl he meets on a vegan dating website who turns out to be bulimic, but with the generous helpings of d.i.y. special effects the words take on a life of their own. We have seen similar technics in museums and art galleries, but never executed with this level of competent coordination on stage. The level of drug-reality verisimilitude is so high that we found ourselves experiencing minor flashbacks.
The show takes you on a trip (pun intended) slowly stripping away one device at a time, until the author is directly communicating with the audience without any affectation. And that’s what we took away from this very funny and tender show; you have you peel away at your own facade to find out who you really are, or you just have to do a lot of drugs, or maybe both.
Life is messy, and no one can stay a prisoner of their own purity forever, especially when psychatropic drugs are involved.
Conceived and Directed by Phil Soltanoff Written by David Barlow
Presented by HERE Arts Center
As part of Refraction Art’s Fusebox Festival, Phil Soltanoff (an experimental theater practitioner) and Joe Diebes (a New York-based sound artist), along with a troupe of a dozen or so performers, presented I/O, an investigation into the matrices of the organic and the technologic. The work was performed in a large warehouse belonging to Austin Film Studios (née Mueller Airport Hangar). The performers, dressed in their street clothes, appeared shortly after the large studio doors were opened to an anticipating crowd outside. Slowly and confidently, the performers lined up in the liminal space between indoors and outdoors. Then, they began to breathe. Traveling quickly through the wireless microphone headsets to a tangle of chord and computer existing in the middle of the warehouse, the sounds of the performers’ breath were transformed by Diebes via laptop into a fugue of human exhalation, and then broadcasted over the many speakers dotting the massive space.
I/O is a collaborative work in the purest sense. All of the sounds emanating from the multiple speakers during the three performances April 13, 14 and 15, were created in-house and in the moment. Thus, the improvised aural tapestries Diebes developed were interwoven with the task-oriented movement of Soltanoff’s troupe. The performers—I dare not call them strictly dancers for there were some very operatic moments—were no doubt given, as with any great improvisation, a set of rules. Rules are boundaries that exist, much like the liminal space between indoors and outdoors, to restrict and are only effective because they can broken. But the performers rarely seemed to break. In fact, their commitment to the ensemble was so strong that even the audience felt part of it. Circling like satellites, we moved freely in the large hangar, letting intuition and will guide our movement choices. It’s rare that an interactive artwork actually manages to involve the audience in a meaningful and entrancing way. It’s an astonishing effort, to be sure. And because I/O succeeds, it should be given credit as one of the premiere performance art events to grace this city in years.
The influences of I/O are multiple and the potential readings are multivalent. At one point, the performers run together as a clump around the massive soundstage, which called to my mind Kathy Duncan’s Running Out of Breath, in which Duncan, decked in street clothes, jogged until she literally ran out of breath. Such task-oriented performance is the backbone of I/O. Rather than resting on this premise, I/O takes it one step further. The ubiquitous speakers (raised on tripods) become principal performers as well; performers often treated the speakers as their analogue doppelganger. Although these stereophonic sentinels don’t have the convenience of a body that can move and articulate, the I/O performers make you aware of what incredibly expressive creatures speakers can be. The speaker often seems to be talking, or singing to us when we listen to the radio. But who ever talks back? The I/O performers do. The relationship between performer and speaker more emulates the relationship between an actor and a mask. A mask, once inhabited by an actor, works upon the actor and not the other way around. Here the speakers seem to be the prime mover, with the humans, occasionally, seeming incidental.
Soltanoff, Diebes and their collaborators (both analog and organic) presented an entranced audience something meditative and moving. It left the question “Technology, do we need it?” in the dust and asked a much more vital set of questions: “Technology, where do we take it? Where does it take us?”
Andy Campbell studies contemporary art/history at The University of Texas at Austin.
Joe Diebes and Phil Soltanoff took the audience on a charming yet also mesmerizing and thought-provoking little journey Friday night at a massive sound stage at Austin Film Studios, the first night of the indie arts festival Fuse Box brought to you by the folks at Refraction Arts.
Diebes and Soltanoff dubbed their piece ‘I/O’ after the computer technology abbreviation for input/output. Concerned with the most basic ways people physically interact with technology, Diebes and Soltanoff staged ‘I/O’ last summer in New York and plan to stage another iteration of the piece next year in Europe.
Diebes, a New York sound artist, and Soltanoff, New York theater director, are onto something with ‘I/O.’ And I’ll follow.
Mother Nature got in on the collaboration Friday. As if on cue, gusts of wind blew and lightning cracked just as sliding doors rolled open to the audience assembled outside, revealing eight performers under sparse lightning each standing in front a speaker.
Dressed in casual street clothes and sporting wireless microphone headsets, the performers each began to utter delicate breathing noises. Those utterances were then instantly recorded by Diebes, a New York sound artist, who sat at a console laden with equipment in the middle of the sound stage. The recorded sound was then electronically sampled, mixed with other sounds and projected on top of the live sounds of the performers.
That fugue-like patterning of sound grew in complexity as performers, changing their breathy utterances to spoken or sung words, re-arranged themselves and their speakers throughout the massive space. The audience was invited inside, at first standing in a self-conscious group around Diebes and his console. But then as the 45-minute piece evolved, people splintered off and wandered freely, as if they felt invested in being a part of the theatrical action.
As the sound grew in aural intricacy into a lush wall of hauntingly lovely music, the actions of the performers gained complexity. Again neat fugue-like patterning came into play as the performers crisscrossed the sound stage, jogged around its edges, issued each other commands for various movements and toted their speakers now and again, the action building in speed and in density.
It ended where it began, in a contemplative hush. But what a sweet ride.
The 2006 edition of the London International Mime Festival has got off to an auspicious start with the latest work from Toulouse-based Compagnie 111. More or Less Infinity is just the sort of playful, stimulating and wordless visual theatre that the festival has been championing for close to three decades. Watching it is like having your eyes and brain tickled for 70 minutes.
The production is the third part of a trilogy exploring interactions between people, objects and movement in one, two and three-dimensional space. The two previous pieces concentrated on the cube and the plane. The focus of Infinity is the line in all its variety — straight, curved, actual, virtual and human.
Steered by the American director Phil Soltanoff, the show is episodic, witty and often mesmerising. Near the start several neat rows of white rods descend slowly, like icicles, from above the stage. These free-floating wands assemble into various configurations — a giant X, a gaping maw. When a low, stark light passes before them they suggest a forest casting shadows behind itself.
It is not long before people, or selective parts of them, begin to appear. Arms sprout from discreet grooves in the floor; they are another kind of line, as are the fingers of each hand.
The tone waxes comic and a tad bizarre. A lone male head connects with a body bent over ostrich-like into the floor. Another man rests his head upon an arm that scampers behind him down to his ankles, scratching as it goes. Such sight gags give way to new, athletic forms of pole dancing, suggesting both diversion and aggression.
Clad in business suits, the six performers carry and walk about upon bendy, rubber-tipped poles like office workers testing unknown skills. The lone woman turns the tables on the tentacular poles that threaten her. One man spins on a U-shaped pole while another wields one like a huge, hard yet undulant spaghetti noodle.
The show thrives on crack timing and the element of surprise. Long poles suddenly swing down like pendulums in a perfectly calibrated, canonic style. A clever shadow dance segues into slow-motion pole vaulting.
Towards the end one actor hauls away the enlarged video image of his face, and a glow-in-the-dark string figure is unravelled like a mummy. The performance stays on the surface, but the play of ideas — about socialisation, perception and identity fragmentation in the digital age — makes for some dazzling fun.
Whatever you do, don’t expect white-faced whimsy. The 2006 London International Mime Festival is all about sex, geometry and the art of manipulation, says its co-director, Helen Lannaghan. “That pretty much covers it, unless you add masks. And whips. No, not whips. I’ve flipped.”
Jokey self-deprecation is par for the course as Lannaghan and her fellow director, Joseph Seelig, gear up to present more than two weeks of the best physical and visual theatre they can lay their hands on.
The main link between the 15 shows on offer this year is that most feature little or no text. Beyond that, the field is wide open in terms of style and content.
Now in its 28th season, the festival kicks off on Wednesday with More or Less Infinity, by the French Compagnie 111. This dazzling entertainment was conceived by Aurélien Bory, a former student of physics and architectural acoustics turned actor, juggler and director, and directed by the American musician and experimental theatre-maker Phil Soltanoff.
Ideal for a digital age, Infinity is all about the line. The performance begins with a mid-air ballet for a neatly ordered field of white rods that hang above the stage like magic wands. A six-strong ensemble in business garb pole-vault with extraordinary grace. A couple of them dematerialise into a martial-arts shadow play or figures that approximate a live version of a video-arcade game. Although its technological tools are relatively simple, they are deployed with wit and sophistication.
Bory met Soltanoff in the late 1990s when the latter was conducting a workshop in Toulouse. “I was teaching a way to think about space and time as an actor without necessarily thinking about the psychological rules of the theatre,” says Solantoff, “and yet you could still come up with things that are full of feeling. I’d been struggling with this approach for years. Aurélien got it instantly. We’ve taken off from there.”
For Soltanoff, good theatre is about “writing meaning on what you see. I’m an ardent people-watcher. I love to sit in a park, watch someone go by and imagine their inner monologue or observe some gesture of theirs that triggers something in me.”
While Bory derives much of his theatrical inspiration from physics, some of Soltanoff’s ideas have been adapted from his appreciation of cyclical modern music. “There are tricks I learnt from Philip Glass and Steve Reich,” says the man who listened to Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians every day for two years. “I’d put it on and hear different ways of cutting up rhythm and time, different ways to make a little story. Eventually I asked myself, what if I did that with staging? I then built a whole series of performance pieces using different minimalist approaches, and some of them just kicked butt.”
Clearly the festival’s concept of mime is not just kids’ stuff. The dark slant of Compagnie 111 can also be seen in what Lannaghan calls “the rebirth of British puppetry in one of its finest vintages”.
She is referring to Faulty Optic’s Horsehead, a comic horror show featuring eccentric automata, mechanical sets and prerecorded and live video; a retrospective trilogy by Stephen Mottram that includes his haunting marionette fable The Seed Carriers; and Lowlife, a vital, Charles Bukowski-inspired examination of addiction by Blind Summit, an innovative young company who investigate puppet and human interaction.
To what art form does the following belong? From above a stage, a row of 13 metre-long sticks is lowered in rigid formation. Then comes another, and another, until there are six rows. Without any visible means, they start to dance, to describe beautiful but witty geometrical patterns in the space above the stage.
Soltanoff joined Bory after being impressed by his Compagnie 111
The lighting goes down and comes up. Now disembodied limbs emerge through evenly spaced grooves cut in the stage floor from one wing to the other. Arms and legs swap places. A head appears between feet. More darkness. Then figures start bouncing comically across the stage mounted on bendy poles of various lengths.
We have gone from puppetry without sticks to clowning to acrobatics, and the show is only five minutes old. The audience, at Les Gémeaux on the southern outskirts of Paris, is intoxicated, and in stitches, as a succession of trompe l'oeil effects, of visual puns and punchlines, of linear sight gags, defies any effort to slap a label on it. The title of the show - Infinity, More or Less - hints at the genre-defying slipperiness of the entertainment.
You could easily suppose you're at the circus, or a performance-art installation. Is this, you might well ask, what they're doing in contemporary dance these days? Or have you somehow strayed into the mind of a video-game designer?
The production opens this year's London International Mime Festival, which for the moment will do as an answer. It is the result of a partnership between Aurélien Bory, founder of the Toulouse-based Compagnie 111, and Phil Soltanoff, an actor-turned-director from Brooklyn who for the past 15 years has worked in the field of dance theatre (or "theatre dance", as he says).
They make an odd couple. Soltanoff, in his early fifties (he looks like the smaller, less well-paid double of George Clooney), is 20 years older, and speaks no French. This did not stop him accepting an invitation to conduct a workshop in Toulouse after a show of his made a huge splash at a theatre festival in Serbia 10 years ago. Bory, a former juggler, attended the workshop and was duly impressed.
A couple of years later he contacted Soltanoff in New York, where he runs the Mad Dog theatre company and an award-winning exhibition and performance space. "He brought a little model of a set he had designed," says Soltanoff. "He said, 'I've always been interested in doing something on a set that's impossible to act on. Do you want to work on this?'" Having seen a video of Compagnie 111's first show, IJK, Soltanoff agreed. They have been working together for five years.
The initial result of the collaboration was Plan B, which followed IJK to the mime festival. Infinity, More or Less, which premièred in Toulouse in September, completes a loosely linked trilogy.
The division of labour is specific. Bory works with the half-dozen performers he has gathered about him, all of them refugees from the circus who wanted to work in the less constricting environment of the theatre. Together they come up with the piece's content. "I have the first decision, which is the concept," says Bory, "and Phil has the last. Phil has the final cut." As director, Soltanoff is its eyes and ears in the auditorium, ensuring that it retains the tautness required to make it work.
Where the first two pieces explored the spatial possibilities of, respectively, the cube and the flat plane, the new piece began as an investigation into linearity. Hence all those sticks and poles and grooves in the stage floor. Over a period of research and development, a series of living designs emerged in which line is presented as a direction, a path, a prison, or whatever the audience wishes to make of it.
Says Soltanoff: "I like the idea that people can investigate the piece in their own way but that the timing and elements of the piece are very precise."
Clearly the collaboration works: in each other, they have the jigsaw piece they were both looking for. "The world is chock full of people like me who consider themselves auteurs with limitations," says Soltanoff. "I like working with people who are better at certain things than I am. Aurélien's got a real design sense."
"There is no compromise," says Bory. "Phil doesn't try to make theatre to please people. He just trusts the work."
This may make it sound all mighty po-faced. But both of them are huge fans of Buster Keaton, and it shows. The jokes come thick and fast. Yet, for all its debt to a great American star of the silent screen, the piece never stops feeling quintessentially French. It has an insouciance, and an opacity, that you find in a lot of plotless French fiction.
Also, it clearly grew out of a subsidised artistic culture where it is possible, as Bory says he likes to do, "to spend two years in a room and see what happens". At college he studied the eccentric combination of physics and cinema, and seems to have hit on more or else the only field of work "where I have somehow found a way to use all these interests and references".
Could Soltanoff have created Infinity, More or Less in America? "Not a chance. The resources are not available. I've been in the trenches for a long time. I'm used to struggling with adversity and poverty and it doesn't bother me. I haven't worked on a project with this sort of budget in my entire life."
These star guests at the London International Mime Festival, which runs to the end of the month, are not sure if they actually fit the bill. "In French we use mime for a very specific definition," says Bory, "which is Marcel Marceau. It is not our work. For me it is theatre, but it is a kinetic piece: the movement of the body, the movement of objects. But maybe in England you use this word differently."
Whatever you call it, you will not see a more captivating piece of theatre this year.
You will not see a more captivating piece of theatre this year," declared Jasper Rees in his interview earlier this week with the makers of the London International Mime Festival's opening show.
A grand claim, but, I can now attest, far from a mistaken one. Those who don't manage to see this show will, alas, have missed out on a thing of infinite jest and beauty.
Even Samuel Beckett, were he alive, might have been persuaded to endorse this abstract-minded act without words, which resembles his own experiments with light, space and repeated movement, taken to the nth degree.
If you had to grope for an elucidation of the show's meaning, it would be nothing more, or less, than man's place in the universe - the way, seen from a cosmic, comic angle, we are but tiny dots in the vast matrix of existence.
But such a description gives little idea of the minute-by-minute playfulness that the Toulouse-based Compagnie 111 and New York avant-gardist Phil Soltanoff have poured into their collaboration.
The principal components of their meticulous, mathematical endeavour are lots and lots of white, vaguely luminescent rods - big ones, small ones, some as tall as the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Tough and sturdy, yet also magically malleable, these strange staffs initially dance before our eyes in simple, mutating formations, like a giant, manually operated computer screensaver. They silently shuffle together, yawn apart, slant this way and that, trickle down like beads in a kaleidoscope.
Little by little, all kinds of kooky electronic sounds begin to assail our ears, and we're introduced to the players - five men, one woman, all in smart business clothes - who make ingenious, imaginative use of the rods: turning them into crutches, stilts, pogo sticks, skipping ropes, even gondoliers' poles.
But it's as though these objects have a life of their own, while the impassive performers have the quality of automata. Lighting effects transform them into robotic shadow-puppets; multiple parallel slits in the stage allow parts of them to disappear, or act as tracks along which they are sent surreally whizzing like balls in a bowling alley or streams of Dada-esque data.
The whole mesmerising spectacle leaves you quite speechless, thrilled and not a little chilled by art's ability to evoke the footling detail and limitless immensity of creation.
A very ingenious wall is at the playful heart of ``Plan B,'' the season-opening show at the New Victory Theater.
Basically a silvery structure, though lighting alters its appearance, the wall is a playground for four agile and acrobatic men who are first seen dressed for a day at the office. In the course of the show, the wall, equipped with trap doors and sliding panels that sometimes serve as steps, handholds and windows onto mischief, changes angles.
At 45 degrees, it serves mainly as a slide. At 90 degrees, it becomes a challenge to climbers; and placed flat, it becomes the mirror of a brilliantly funny slow-motion kung fu battle in which the performers seem to soar through the air, kicking and hacking, when, in fact, all they are doing is sliding and turning while lying down.
The variations on the theme that is the wall include juggling, clowning and acrobatics
enhanced by atmospheric lighting and music that ranges from rumbling to rock in a show
that transports the performers from the earth to the stars and the audience from the cares of the day to laughter and applause.
This 70-minute intermissionless and wordless presentation of ingenious physical theater is running through Oct. 17, intended for audiences 8 and older and presented by Compagnie 111 of Toulouse, France, and directed by Phil Soltanoff.
With ``Plan B,'' a new season at the New Victory is off to a winning start.
Overheard on the way out of the Queen Elizabeth Hall - Woman (slightly wheedling): "That was quite good, James"; Man (with the petulance of a nine-year-old): "It was rubbish and boring."
Well, whoever you are, James, you have the soul of a breeze-block. Toulouse-based Compagnie 111's Mime Festival offering, Plan B, was indeed quite good. That's "quite" in the sense of entirely, utterly, transcendentally.
The first phase doesn't promise much. A quartet of men slide repeatedly down a brushed-steel plane inclined at 45 degrees. Their paces and poses vary, but it's fundamentally a one-note riff. Then little ledges and trapdoors begin to appear and disappear, and the performers tumble around in a slow-motion gymnastic routine. From there, it keeps getting stranger and more wondrous.
The plane moves to the vertical, but the performers brace against each other and move around on it as if it were just another floor; much later, it falls flat, and the horizontal image is video-projected on to the back wall, so that the players appear to be leaping and spinning in air when in fact they're throwing shapes on the ground. It's as if an M.C. Escher print had come alive, with folk casually strolling around in planes all at right angles to one another. The first simple demonstration of gravity has slowly built to a kind of physical jazz that affirms, suspends and somehow syncopates gravity by turns.
The brilliantly versatile design of Aurelien Bory (who also has a nice line as the gangling comic butt in performance) is augmented by Stephane Ley's sound design. It seems as if the entire plane is miked up, so that clumps and thuds provide a rhythm to the proceedings. In the ball-juggling sequences (these are to conventional juggling what the rest of the show is to conventional mime), the sound of the balls bouncing builds up into polyrhythms, embroidered with echo and phasing.
One of the "floor" sequences is accompanied by deliberately clichéd martial-arts movie sound effects.
There's a great joy to Plan B. It's not just that we share in the cunning of the visions and stunts, but that amid all this playfulness, profound and basic feelings are conveyed. There are things in this world, like gravity and dimension, that are immutable; we can fantasise around them, we can pretend, and in our imaginations we can soar; but at bottom, the reality is every bit as wondrous too. This is apparently the second part of a planned trilogy. I can't wait.
To Whom It May Concern, headily subtitled “a response to John Cage's Silence,” casts a mesmerizing spell. This taut, site-specific piece runs over 83 evocative minutes. An athletic ensemble of 12 actors portrays multitudes of regular people. Waking up in the morning, they walk out in a human stream, at first in threes, with some lagging behind, others trailing off, and still others trying to catch up in a hop-skip in a Muybridge-like film-strip effect. Life is a time-killing procession of daily rituals that give a semblance of order to chaos. Inside the square confines of work, actors partner off and enact silly power games using empty gestures and berserk movement. Partying at a late-night disco, people dance, gyrate, trade cruisy glances, speak banalities, form networks and crazy permutations. The expressive piece distills myriad human interactions into endless loops. A lyric meditation on the fierce geometry of ambition and desire, it resonates all the stronger because it's performed in a loft like space in a skyscraper in the financial district.
It is a paradox that the performance, "To Whom it May Concern," with its reserved and strictly built structure, succeeds in making the theater goer complete this theatre piece with their own unrestrained associations, which was the director's main goal, inspired by John Cage's theory of "happening." Actually, the paradox of the show lies in its cool, cerebral, abstract structure, in contrast with an immediate emotional reaction developed in the audience during the show.
The fullest embodiment of this paradox is achieved capitally in the paradigmatic scene called "Going," in which twelve expressionless artists, dressed in career suits and briefcases, endlessly repeat the geometrically stylized mechanical movements of people going to work. Right when the unchanging, rhythmically repeating movements become trance inducing, the drama occurs. Suddenly and unexpectedly, one of the actors introduces a new direction, disturbing the harmony of the "yuppie's" life. If we let ourselves speculate, we could come to a conclusion that the origin of a real and intense excitement caused by the disturbance of everyday movements, can be found in the roots of drama itself. The essence of drama lies in the disturbance of order, and the contrast between an individual's goals and that of a group, doesn't it?
But, the "mutiny" doesn't last long. Shortly, those new movements fit back into the old system, -the old mis-en-scene , and the repetition resumes. If we continue using our imagination, we could come up with the entire meaning of the show: the life of the businessman and businesswoman in a modern world is so rigid, sterile, and automated, that any attempt of spontaneous behavior is doomed to fail.
But this analysis, based on the system of free association, should not lead us to a misconception. The performance, "To Whom it May Concern," doesn't aspire to point out important truths or convey a critical attitude. It satisfies itself with an analytical deconstruction of the phenomena of a "yuppie's" life.
Beside the second scene called, "Going," the performance also covers all the important phases of the day of a "yuppie" : Waking, Working, Partying, Returning. It is apparent that this performance is a closed circular structure, which is in contrast with the complete openness of its meaning. To simplify my explanation, I would say that the performance deals with analysis while the synthesis is left to the audience.
Finally, I'd like to emphasize that the best part of this show is the coaction between the impeccable technical precision of the performers and their genuine commitment.
I believe, for the company, " Phil Soltanoff and Mad Dog," the best days are yet to come.
How you feel standing before, say, a geometric composition by the abstract painter Piet Mondrian may give some indication of your tolerance for the Austrian-born playwright Peter Handke. Both artists rigorously interrogate the fundamental definitions of their respective aesthetic forms. While the philosophical implications of their work are easy enough to grasp, the subtleties of texture and light are somewhat more challenging to appreciate. The ideas behind Offending the Audience—Handke's paradigmatic early play in which four actors reel off a litany of what their audience is not going to experience—may still make for provocative discussion, but it takes a rarefied sensibility to want to sit through it twice.
All credit then to Mad Dog's New York premiere of Handke's The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other at Five Myles in Brooklyn, a production I would gladly attend multiple times. The text, translated by Gitta Honegger consists exclusively of stage directions, some of which are played aloud on tape, though none are illustrated in a literal-minded fashion. An ensemble of 10 barefoot actors traipses-in and out of a playing area marked off by tape, as a soundtrack mixes street noise and bird sounds with jazz and Latin music. “One who could be anyone passes another who could be anyone,” announces an unseen voice, underscoring the romantically charged possibility of the title. It's not only prospective lovers who are to-ing and fro-ing, but also refugees, shoppers, joggers, pregnant women, merchants, even a guy on a skateboard.
While all this coming and going may seem to make for singularly unpromising dramatic material, in the hands of director Phil Soltanoff (who choreographed along with Debra Fernandez) the work attains the kind of sensual suggestiveness of modem dance. The physically eloquent cast moves with a determined vigor, their eyes fixed to aerial points beyond them and only occasionally deigning to "cruse" their fellow travelers. Solitary yet inextricably linked, they shift in gracefully austere patterns that have a Mondrian-like sense of beauty. If you look long enough you might just find unexpected depth in the glistening shallows.
Interview with Phil Soltanoff
Critical Stages/Scènes Critiques
The IATC webjournal
by Randy Gener
How is it possible that Phil Soltanoff, one of the most thrillingly imagistic directors working in the American theatre today, has yet to break out on the national scene?
The reasons are complex and plenty, but certainly they certainly do not issue from Soltanoff’s innovative, mesmerizing theatre. He is a stager of hybrid artifice of the first rank. Since 1996, when he premiered his astonishing To Whom It May Concern at an abandoned floor in downtown New York City (and later at the Belgrade International Theatre Festival 1997), this infectiously radical director has never ceased challenging traditional forms, colliding artistic genres in compelling ways, building links among seemingly incompatible media and materials, and using new technologies in surprising yet human ways.......