Mabou Mines at NYTW

Once upon a time in NYC there was a land called bohemia, in a world called counterculture where the inhabitants played at a game called avant garde. Take a trip in the wayback machine and visit this surreal wonderland via Mabou Mines’ Pataphysics Penyeach:Summa Dramatica & Porco Morto playing January 13-31, 2010 at New York Theatre Workshop’s 4th Street Theatre.

The world of Pataphysics Penyeach is a world born in Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, a place where the most real is the unreal, where stream of consciousness dialogue barely covers the anarchy bubbling beneath. Surreal and slippy, adhering to its own lysergic logic, Pataphysics Penyeach speaks in the authentic voice of a time that seems unimaginable now, a place where words and ideas bounced back and forth like psychedelic ping-pong, where lust and play were the watchwords of insurrection, where The Man was everything that was anti-fun, anti-spirit, anti-FREEDOM.

Presented as a project of New York Theatre Workshop’s Jonathan Larson Lab, Pataphysics Penyeach is actually two monologues written by downtown legend Lee Breuer. The first, Summa Dramatica, is billed as a spiritual acting lesson and is delivered by the inimitable Ruth Maleczech in the guise of a Bovine Goddess. The second monologue, Porco Morto, is an elegy for Ponzi Porco PhD, pig of the avant-garde. Porco is resurrected, via a bunraku puppet, to rhapsodize upon his sexual attraction for The New York Times. He is voiced by Greg Mehrten and the New York Times is brought to lovely, if silent, life by the sultry Jessica Weinstein and a band of burka-clad puppeteers.

I have no idea what either show was really about, I’ll be honest. I mean, loosely, Summa Dramatica is a riff on William James’ “Varieties of Religious Experience”, a meditation on the death of the spirit in modern society. Porco Morto, seems like a lament about the death of the counterculture, but more than anything I think it is about the aging artist dealing with issues of relevance and meaning in an ever-shifting, ever-accelerating world.

I don’t think that either piece is officially “done” – I’m not sure they are meant to be. They are part of an ever-expanding, ever-exploding oeuvre that Mabou keeps, um, mining, time and again. Its like that idea that the song is always playing somewhere, and we just kind of tune into it, serve as vessels for it, from time to time.

The last Mabou show I saw was DollHouse when it reprised at St. Ann’s Warehouse and it was such a stunning, massive, overwhelming work that it is fascinating to see Pataphysics Penyeach, which is such a lo-fi, low-key, handspun endeavor. DollHouse felt really contemporary, Pataphysics feels a little bit like a message from another time. I think what unites the two is anarchy – a desire to undermine the dominant narrative, to unseat expectations and try to shake up perception. Breuer is, at heart, a trickster, a merry prankster playing at play, realizing that fun is serious, existential, business.

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