Taking Risks

by Barry Drogin

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My aesthetic is, and has always been, small-scale, so it is no surprise that I was much more taken by the three-man show, "Spirit," presented by Improbable at New York Theatre Workshop, than by the spectacular failure, "Red Beads," with Mabou Mines leading a cast of a hundred at New York University's Skirball Center. It's a fantastic coincidence that both used puppetry, and that both used the techique of Ningyo-buri, where two puppeteers manipulate a live actor as if he/she were a puppet.

"Red Beads" managed to be both overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time, the Sufi "whisper chorus," the "Flying by Foy," in the hands of an avant-garde director like Lee Breuer are not to be made light of. By taking risks we all accept that we will occasionally fail in public, and there is great beauty and accomplishment in the piece, don't get me wrong. I think one of the mis-steps was in the animals; there are three acts, each adding to the fundamental cast of father/mother/daughter an animal (dog, cat, bird), and the wisps of satin cloth just didn't work. When a daughter's dog dies in an Edgar Allen Poe story, it's got to be a lot more gut-wrenching and foreboding than a piece of white cloth falling to a stage.

"Spirit," on the other hand, had a tiny ultra-raked stage within the stage (whose boundaries were never violated), a small set of props explored with great invention and imagination, an improvisatory structure (the first and last minutes are also improvised) loosely hung upon a story of three baker brothers, the youngest intercepting a draft order for the eldest, going to war in his stead to bomb cities, only to die in his stead (the last element in doubt because alternative endings are presented to the audience).

Whereas in "Red Beads" the use of Ningyo-buri is stylistic, in "Spirit" it is integral - the two live brothers can't face the fact that their brother is dead, and re-animate him as a way of dealing with their loss. I had a beer with Guy Dartnell after the performance I attended, and he said that the manipulation - the piece was first presented in Glasgow in 2000 - came from simple improv exercises during development when the actor who played the younger brother, Phelim McDermott, was dealing with his father's death and just didn't feel like moving. The spectre of dying parents haunts the script as well, as does the border between reality and fiction - there are wonderful moments when the audience is made to feel self-conscious, including one where we're told we're a group of people "all facing in the same direction."

"Spirit" has been giving problems to the marketing people, who don't know how to describe the piece; that, and the steep ticket price, mean that, even with good reviews and the relatively small NYTW performance space, the house is not filling up. Guy is also touring with a one-man show, "Travels with my Virginity," developed at BAC, the Battersea Arts Centre, where I met Guy on my way through London prior to NewOp10 in Oslo. Guy's work spans theatre, music, circus, dance; unlike "Shockheaded Peter," which Guy's collaborators are most famous for here in New York, "Spirit" has no songs, although the vocalized drone of airplanes does play a significant role in the piece. Music-theatre? A play with music? A play with vocalizations, puppets, stagecraft, improvisation, movement - call it what you will.

People taking risks, big or small, that's what it's about.

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Last Updated: August 4, 2007