Funny how the notion of “avant-garde” has so little to do with time, history or even artistic vision.
All you really have to do to be considered “avant-garde” is to eschew conventional narrative, even if you’ve been doing it for a quarter century. Well, there’s nothing conventional about “Cyclopedia,” a poetic dreamscape from the Margolis Brown Adaptors Company making its Kansas City debut.
And, yes, avant-garde seems like an apt description of what Kari Margolis and Tony Brown have been doing since 1984, when they formed their company in New York. They create plays but they don’t write them in the traditional sense. They let the plays evolve though a long, stop-and-start process of improvisation.
That’s the genesis of “Cyclopedia,” a three-actor piece that incorporates physical performances into a surrealistic exploration of some of the most fundamental questions faced by humankind: “Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going?”
Don’t expect an answer. This isn’t that kind of play.
This piece — being performed for only the fifth time — combines Brown’s evocative electronic score, superior physical performances from Ian Blivins, Szilard Varnai and Gregory G. Schott and voices and vocal effects performed from the control booth by Jarod Hanson. The show also incorporates puppetry and slide projections.
In the course of about 70 minutes, Blivins and Varnai seem to morph in and out of fleeting characters and changing relationships. At times their interplay is very funny but they experience a full range of emotions, including anger and despair. Their intensity levels remain high throughout. At times they are joined on stage by Schott, who provides oblique commentary on action that is at times simply incomprehensible.
The tactile set by Rick Paul is a room backed by red curtains with overflowing stacks of books in the corners. The books at various times are psychological weapons, enigmatic sources of knowledge and mystical objects.
There were times, I confess, when I became a little impatient with this defiantly cryptic show. But the performances were so good that I couldn’t stop watching. This is conceptual theater and the goal is to plant images in your consciousness that you will return to repeatedly in the days that follow. Viewers should be prepared to just go with it.
As Margolis put it in a talk-back session on opening night, she wants to create a visceral performance that invites intellectual reflection after the fact.
“We believe the show actually starts when it’s over,” she said.
“Cyclopedia” will be performed at 8 p.m. Oct. 10-11 and 2 p.m. Oct.12 at the Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Central. Tickets: $15-$18; 816-753-0517; www.byrdproductions.org.
To reach Robert Trussell, theater critic, call 816-234-4765 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Human Show Review
A Smart Look at Life at its Most Ordinary
Graydon Royce, Star Tribune
March 21, 2005 MARGO0321
In less skilled hands, “The Human Show” could become a self-indulgent acting exercise — cerebral and impenetrable. But in the hands, feet, legs, arms, faces and bodies of the Margolis-Brown Theater Company, this 65-minute piece blooms as a paradox of simplicity and complexity, rewarding us with a rich physical vocabulary and a spare verbal lexicon. In fact, terming this troupe merely “skilled” shortchanges what it has done in “The Human Show,” playing now at Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis. Director Kari Margolis and seven performers ruthlessly strip their art of adornment and remodel it with fresh transparency.
Seven lost souls prepare for a social gathering to which they have been invited. The event is life and on a tabula rasa stage, these garish creatures engage in what might be described as an epic poem of the banal. Mundane statements (“I’ll have a couple of drinks before I go;”Am I overdressed?” I’m going to get lucky tonight!”) ring with clarity not because they are profound, but because they aptly crystallize the social patterns we drift through mindlessly every day. Accenting this ethos, Margolis works her cast (May Lane Bernardo, Ian Bivins, Beth Brooks, Jay Hanson, Erik Hoover, Kym Longhi, Michael A. Sward) through movement that we would consider stylized or exaggerated. She sees it as unfettered by convention — an act of primitive reality.
An aggressive and precisely timed kinesthetic dance emerges. Broad gestures, tiny tics, a ballet skirting the borders of gymnastics and professional wrestling all mesh in one cohesive style. The performers have given Margolis incredible material with which to work — on two occasions the tableau of seven people balanced in a rough pyramid on a folding chair brought spontaneous applause — and she assembles it with a disciplined eye.
It’s funny and inventive, probing human nature. Like the thoughts of people who interpret unintended messages at a party. Perhaps that guy or gal looking your way is burning with passion. Or is it just fright over how creepy you look? Or maybe it’s just a bad case of gas. Margolis and her troupe play with that inscrutability. People fighting over a chair symbolize the struggle for authority, the pride of achieving it and the scheming to overtake it. Isolation, desperation, alienation, impassivity, desire, pecking order, the tenacity of status holders, the bid for attention — they are all revealed here in tiny vignettes that invite our curiosity over what will come next.
And then there is Tony Brown’s soundscape, a textured piece of original and standard tunes in diverse instrumentation. Insistent throughout each moment, it both drives and reacts to the action.
This is undeniably a heady piece, not for everyone. But for those intrigued by the intersection of dance, pantomime, language and performer insight, “The Human Show” is much worth seeing.
Graydon Royce is at email@example.com.
Rocky Horror Show Reviews
A sassy production of ‘Rocky Horror’
Folks looking for a freaky good time should check out Joel Sass’ glamtastic staging of “The Rocky Horror Show,” which opened Friday night with a frisky and fearless student cast at the University of Minnesota’s Rarig Center. Sass, who makes his directing debut at the Guthrie Lab later this year, was invited back for a second time as a guest director at the University. “Rocky Horror” feeds right into his zany instincts and at a preview Thursday, the show reflected his wickedly clever eye for the steamy absurdity of this cult classic musical. A vocal cadre in the youngish audience shouted out the signature prompts and responses to the show’s dialogue. “Wow, that is hot!” shouted a balcony dweller when Frank ‘N’ Furter seduced strait-laced Janet into a tryst. The Moulin Rouge set, the cabaret costuming, funky props and arch attitude are all Sass signatures stamped on this young and energetic cast. He illustrates again why he’s among the most interesting young directors in town. (612-624-2345 for info and tickets.)
Simulated sex! Polymophous perversity! College kids onstage in their underwear! Sound effects that go slurp-slurp during the scenes that depict what I believe some stag filmmakers call “hot oral action”! Your tax dollars at work! Please, please don’t let Tim Pawlenty see this outstanding and completely unexpurgated production of Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror. The rest of you are encouraged to attend, especially if you’re a Rocky Horror cultist (I am decidedly not of such a breed, but had a good time anyway), or if you’re under the misimpression that collegiate productions are best left to other college students. This giddy and wonderfully designed production of Richard O’Brien’s pro-hedonism musical is guest directed by Joel Sass, the Mary Worth Theatre Company’s brilliant artistic director who is slated to helm Pericles next year at the Guthrie Lab. Sass and musical director Michael Croswell mine the show for all the smut and camp it offers, which is a lot, and they’ve drawn out some perfectly over-the-top performances. Nathan Goettsch is radio-DJ smooth and Vincent Price-droll as the show’s goth tour guide, while Benjamin Hanna and Samantha Colburn are charming as horny and repressed dorks Brad (“Asshole!”) and Jane (“Slut!”). Jairus Abts’s baritone doesn’t cut through the mix enough during his musical numbers, but his Frank is sassy and stage-filling. With respect to Robin Everson’s fearless portrayal of the dress-only-in-gold-spandex-hotpants Rocky, let me respectfully defer to the four coeds seated in front of me whose thoughts on Mr. Everson’s Atlas-like physique centered on its slobber-inducing hotness. “I’m totally gonna e-mail him tonight,” promised one, who also troublingly hinted at the possibly fatal consequences of anything that might hinder her conquest. In February of ’05, the University Theatre will team up with another relatively well-known local theater visionary when it brings Michael Sommers in for an evening of new puppetry one-acts. Your tax dollars are at work, and I mean that with absolute sincerity.
Transsexuals aren’t just sweet.
In the University theatre’s gender-bending production “The Rocky Horror Show,” Dr. Frank-n-Furter (Jairus Abts), a transsexual, is proof that what was once biologically separate and determined (man from woman) is now indefinite and bent on provoking a sexually repressed society.
With heavy-handed irony and scarcely concealed subtext, “The Rocky Horror Show” follows love muffins Brad (Benjamin Hanna) and Janet (Samantha Colburn) on a terror-filled odyssey of depravity.
Playwright Richard O’Brien’s musical is more or less a moral tale, with emphasis on “less.”
One-dimensional characters and irreverent plot devices mar the musical but identify it as a classical spoof on 1970s B-horror movies, where predictable plot motivations lead characters into bloody mayhem.
Then there’s the sardonic nostalgia of 1950s gender roles.
Brad is the archetypal male yoked with reason and ordained as protector. Janet is a woman prone to emotional tics and hysterical fits. They are biological opposites to the core.
Because of a convenient flat tire, the couple arrives at Dr. Frank-n-Furter’s dark castle and finds themselves in the company of his alien revelers from Transylvania.
A rippling-muscled sex object named Rocky (Robin Everson) is brought to life, a chorus of minions sing Meatloaf-like rock ballads and viewers throw their taste and decorum out the window to feast on pure raunchiness.
When showcased in 1974, O’Brien’s musical aroused a dialogue about the constrictions governing sex and gender.
Three decades later, director Joel Sass faces different problems concerning the musical’s relevance and timeliness.
Although the theme of sexual repression is universal, O’Brien’s era provided “The Rocky Horror Show” with a strong cachet.
Conveniently distanced from the 1950s gender rigidity, 1974 was still close enough for O’Brien to ricochet his funhouse sexology off inflexible stereotypes from the past.
Viewers today come to the text removed from the musical’s historical grounding largely because of the 1975 movie adaptation “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Their nostalgia is for the movie and its absurdities instead of its decadent critique.
Because nostalgia is the axel around which “The Rocky Horror Show” turns and greases its raunchy humor, Sass had to find a way to marry the show’s grotesqueries to some kind of meaning.
In rehearsal, Sass briefed the cast and crew on what he was imagining for the piece. He told them to go for a show that resembled — “a Bananarama video, circa 1985.”
“And they just looked at me. I think that they were like 4- or 3-year-olds then. This is a show that their parents went to see,” Sass said.
How did Sass direct a piece that refuses to be nostalgic for nostalgia’s sake?
He isolated the theme of alienation. In it, he said he found more relevance than the specific critique of repression and unbounded sexual reveling.
Outsiders, the ungrounded, the marginalized are accepted into an alien environment where they make their own world, context and definitions.
“That’s why folks who are teenagers or in their early 20s still find this movie fun and affirming — because we continue to live in a society that drives our youth to feel alienated.” Sass said.
‘Sleepwalkers’ an awe-inspiring epic
BY CAROLYN PETRIE, 9/26/02
Depending on your view of mortality, the act of spending 90 minutes reflecting on birth, life and death might leave you feeling moved, baffled or even amused. Margolis Brown Theater Company’s “Sleepwalkers,” an amazing pastiche of trippy meditations on those very subjects, will lead you through all those states and much more. Packed with dense, gorgeous imagery and executed with incredible creative precision, this multimedia event emerges as an awe-inspiring epic.
Margolis Brown’s work is generally called “movement theater,” a simple label for a complex performance art. Their shows bring together dance, spoken word, visual art, video, live music, wacky props and any other imaginative force that strikes the fancy of co-artistic directors Kari Margolis and Tony Brown.
In the case of “Sleepwalkers,” the elements onstage include a breathing desert, a 15foot ladder, several lifelike baby puppets and seven Grim Reapers. Performed by a cast of 30 actor-dancers and a handful of onstage musicians, the show is like a gorgeous work of surrealist art come to life.
The show’s torrent of rich images range from the profoundly moving to the just plain bizarre. In one brilliant, ephemeral pas de deux, a dancer transforms from a toddling baby to a swaggering adult in just a few steps. He and his father share a graceful and heartbreaking journey, supporting each other from the child’s infancy until the father’s withering old age. In another jaw-dropping, video-heavy segment, lovely female faces morph on a huge, sun-like disk while military planes form moving angel wings on either side of the stage.
Mostly, the stage pictures director Margolis has created defy easy description. They are layered not just with Pearl Rea’s majestic lighting and Brown’s trance-like original music, but with great humor and emotion by the ensemble, which seems at once a faceless mass and in the next moment a group of distinct, connected individuals.
Ultimately, all of Margolis Brown’s overwhelmingly creative machinations exist in order to prompt a simple question: Are we conscious of all that’s happening in our lives, or are we all sleepwalkers? Not to worry. The company’s amazing dreamscape will keep audiences awake for weeks to come.