Playwright Shawn Ferreyra and director-costumer Amy Louise Cole are friends & colleagues I respect and admire for their cleverness, sheer theatricality and expert sense of stagecraft.
Here they've found a little-known historical figure in Elagabolus, preening queeny teenage boy-emperor, and the decadent debauchery that led to his demise at the hand of his own men: treachery, lechery, animal and human sacrifice, phallic worship, assassinations etc., presented with ambitious small-scale pageantry that somehow has an underlying sweetness to it. It's like Caligula as performed by the cast of Pippin, and I mean that in a flattering way.
The ensemble is consistently wonderful as they take on a dizzying number of characters, from Roman senators to vestal virgins to gladiators and servants (Lily Balsen as the slave Gemina is particularly arresting, with a wild desperation in her eyes alternating with total resignation at her lowly lot in life, especially her mistress' nonchalant suicide pact orders).
The two standouts -- and only because they have the showiest roles -- are Norman Munoz as Elagabolus and Kathryn Wood as his grandmother, the lady Julia. Munoz has a feline quality that brings a sensuality to what could have been a one-note caricature, and though he is utterly despicable throughout, there is something playful and lovable to the monster.
Wood is in full battleaxe mode, with a character that is equal parts Lady Macbeth, Lady Bracknell, Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate and Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate: deliciously evil and patently amoral, she's like a vivacious, voracious Barbara Bush as she plots to keep the men in her family in power no matter what the ugly cost.
With Amy Louise Cole at the helm as both director and costumer, the pacing is calibrated and the costumes are phenomenal, especially all the trick pieces that reveal the carnage. Shawn Ferreyra has a great way with words -- blending a classical formality with modern vernacular -- and a clear understanding of dramatic structure and tragic inevitability. They make quite a team and their theatre company is one to watch. Catch this one if you can.
Theater Team Makes an Ally of Random Circumstance
Just about all of the publicity materials and even some of the reviews of the Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s production of “No Dice” — a theater work consisting of seven actors performing bizarre dances and reciting telephone conversations about mundane topics — mention that the show is a whittled-down 4-hour version of an 11-hour monster epic.
Sounds like a legendary day (and night) at the theater: 11 hours of people in odd costumes acting out, in melodramatic, amateur-dinner-theater style, discourses on office supplies and dieting strategies.
Sounds legendary because it is. There is no 11-hour version. There’s not even really a four-hour version. (The production is closer to three and a half hours.) But the creators, the husband-and-wife team Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, are doing little to combat the misinformation.
“It’s a myth,” Mr. Liska said proudly, as if the word “myth” justified itself.
But it’s still startling that such an unlikely show, at any length, is drawing raves from the critics and has sold out its run at the SoHo Rep (actually the production takes place at 66 White Street, a former indoor playground a few doors down from the SoHo Rep’s theater).
The show, which is closing Friday night, would have kept extending its run at the SoHo Rep if Nature Theater was not putting on another work at the Public Theater next week for the Under the Radar festival.
That show is called “Poetics: A Ballet Brut” and in some sense is the opposite of “No Dice.” Where “No Dice” is a verbal marathon, “Poetics” is wordless, more dance than theater. But “Poetics,” which was created first, is in many ways the forerunner of “No Dice.”
In an interview in the small, sunny East Village studio that they share with two cats, Mr. Liska and Ms. Copper are much more eager to talk art than biography.
A quick sketch: Mr. Liska, 34, the voluble, big-picture half of the couple, was born in Slovakia, went to Dartmouth and studied under Richard Foreman in New York. He has a tendency to interrupt Ms. Copper, 36, the quieter, detail-oriented one, who also went to Dartmouth and studied at La MaMa. In the mid-1990s they formed a company that they would later name Nature Theater of Oklahoma, which comes from the magical company that the hero of Kafka’s novel “Amerika” runs off to join.
But after a few years of doing theater Ms. Copper and Mr. Liska quit. They were tired of exhausting friends, going broke, making compromises, praying for reviews and when reviews came, managing the fallout.
“The work itself took up maybe 10 percent of the anxiety,” Mr. Liska said. “The rest was social dynamics.”
A few years went by, and they explored the less collaborative delights of photography and visual art. But in 2002 a friend asked Mr. Liska to come up with a play. He agreed, thinking it would be a one-time thing. They’ve been back in theater ever since.
Ms. Copper and Mr. Liska often divide their theater involvement into the period before the break and after; the second time around they were less anxious about success and thus more inclined to experiment. They began to gain a following for unconventional takes on classic plays, including Chekhov’s “Seagull” and “Three Sisters.”
And Sarah Benson, before she became artistic director of SoHo Rep, approached them in 2006 about developing a version of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” She had already arranged a production of “Poetics” at the Graduate Center of City University of New York. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Ms. Benson, who became artistic director last year. “I don’t really know what it is, but it’s fully amazing.”
The response to the “Twelfth Night” commission is one of the reasons for the title: “No Dice.” They were more interested in making new work, inspired by John Cage’s ideas about chance in art.
“Poetics,” for example, was choreographed using dice. Each face on the die represented one of six possible gestures, and each appendage — two arms, two legs and the head — got its own roll of the dice. Dice determined where the actors stand and for how long. There are four actors in “Poetics,” but, alas, no such thing as a four-sided die. So, to determine who did what, the directors used a dreidel.
The resulting script looks like some horrendous pre-algebra assignment, but in some ways it made for a much more enjoyable and interesting theater-making experience, Mr. Liska said. Instead of debates between directors and actors about motivation, the actors are forced to make sense of the choices imposed on them by the dice.
“Everybody is learning from it as opposed to everybody arguing,” Mr. Liska said. “You’re fighting with a force that’s outside of you.”
The weird gestures and movements in “No Dice” were put together using a deck of playing cards (not, ahem, dice), with each suit representing a different set of 13 movements. One set inspired by disco moves, another by the gestures made by Mr. Liska’s non-English-speaking mother as she was trying to tell a story to the non-Slovak-speaking cast.
The text of the play was culled from more than 100 hours of telephone conversations that Mr. Liska recorded over the course of several months. Even before “No Dice,” he had tried recording himself everywhere he went as a way of heightening awareness of what he was doing and saying. “Drove my parents nuts,” Ms. Copper said.
Mr. Liska and Ms. Copper spliced the phone conversations together in an order based loosely on the conventions of traditional drama: a stranger shows up at the end of Act I; a shocking development seems to have taken place just before Act II begins. In picking the words used, they tried to avoid what Ms. Copper calls “the Oprah moments,” preferring to let the audience form its own narratives out of trivial, meandering conversations.
Yes, it sounds weird. O.K., it is weird. But the result, as Claudia La Rocco put it in The New York Times, is “the language of the everyday — woefully insufficient yet so strangely beautiful — that we apply to constant, failed attempts at explaining this impossible world.” Oh, and there are free sandwiches.
The insufficiency and beauty of interpretation inspired the company’s next two works, which are scheduled to have their premieres in Europe this summer. For one, Mr. Liska called around 30 people and asked them to recite from memory the plot of “Romeo and Juliet.” Actors, in Elizabethan dress, recite nine of the answers, some of which introduce new characters or wander off on impromptu digressions. The show also involves a person in a chicken suit.
In the other work, “Rambo Solo,” one of the actors in “No Dice” was filmed in his studio apartment describing, enacting and discoursing upon one of his favorite movies, “First Blood.” He performs the monologue live while behind him three video screens depict his performing the monologue in his apartment.
Ms. Copper knows what you’re thinking, and she insisted: None of this is meant to be facetious. Despite the laughter that percolates in the audience throughout performances of “No Dice,” the mundane day-to-day melodramatized in the show is their own day-to-day.
“We are taking it as seriously as possible; it’s our life,” she said. “If it is a joke, it’s a serious joke.”
“No Dice” continues through Friday at the SoHo Rep, (212) 941-8632; sohorep.org. Performances take place at 66 White Street in TriBeCa (formerly Sydney’s Playground) between Broadway and Church Street, three blocks south of Canal. The run is sold out. “Poetics: A Ballet Brut” runs from Jan. 10 to Jan. 20 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street at Astor Place, East Village; (212) 967-7555; publictheater.org.
Stories of Arabian Nights and a Dystopian New York
The mother of all storytellers, Scheherazade is the central character in “1001” but she doesn’t stay Scheherazade for long. In Jason Grote’s kaleidoscopic reinvention of the “1001 Nights” tales, she morphs into Dahna, a contemporary Palestinian graduate student in New York, just as Scheherazade’s husband, the wife-killing Shahriyar, becomes Dahna’s Jewish boyfriend, Alan, and her sister Dunyazade becomes Dahna’s sister, Lubna. Moving fluently back and forth from the “Arabian Nights” of legend (complete with jeweled turbans and scimitars) to New York in a dusty, apocalyptic near-future, these stories within stories come to include Flaubert during his wild-oats days in Egypt and even a cameo appearance by Jorge Luis Borges, the master of labyrinthine fictions.
Ethan McSweeny’s kinetic direction keeps the piece, at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, moving in a quick and lucid way, as it ranges from Sinbad’s tale to Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” to Dahna and Alan on a visit to Gaza. There is not quite a Scheherazade-level command of narrative on display, but there is a sure sense of how to turn literary traditions into active, theatrical storytelling.
Dashing about in multiple roles, the actors are smooth, especially Roxanna Hope as Scheherazade/ Dahna, and the versatile Drew Cortese in roles from Flaubert to an angry Zionist college student.
If the play is often heavy-handed about how stories shape reality, this small production, with minimal props and clever use of lighting (designed by Tyler Micoleau) demonstrates how dynamic storytelling can spin us over the rough spots.
But there is no disguising that Mr. Grote’s writing is weakest where it had the greatest opportunity to be fresh: in its examination of the links between “The Arabian Nights” and today’s fraught images of the Middle East. When Shahriyar chillingly says that he kills a wife a day so they will not have a chance to sin in adultery, the line resonates with hints of holy wars and the repression of women now.
More often, the play is schematic; the pairing of Dahna and Alan, even the apocalyptic event with its echoes of 9/11, add little to the conversation about Islam and the West. It’s that flaw that makes “1001” no more than a graceful gloss on timeless but familiar ideas.