Notes from the Closing Week of undergroundzero at P.S. 122

Late last week and over the weekend, trying to dodge out on the heat, I caught three of the performances in the closing week of undergroundzero festival at P.S. 122.

First up was Dangerous Ground‘s From Dawn till Night (The Earth is uninhabitable like the moon). Before I get to the performance itself, I have to admit that the work’s source material—Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1978 film In a Year of 13 Moons—reminds me that there’s an entire era of European art film that bores me to tears. I know Fassbinder was a deeply influential director, and I know that this film is supposed to be a deeply personal one for him (a response to the suicide of his lover Armin Meier), but in the end, I have limited patience for films that tackle big, capitalized concepts like “Identity” in the abstract, present a critique of capitalist materialism in a way that reads just as well as a pornographic glorification of it, and play out as a Freudian dreamscape, particularly when (and this is pretty par for the course) all the female characters are reduced to little more than phantasms of a libidinal Id, screens onto which male neuroses are projected in sexual terms.

But in this case, the question is really what director Doris Mirescu does with her source material, and while I’m not sure it was a complete success, From Dawn till Night was by far the most interesting of the shows I saw at the festival. As the audience enters, the near uniformly sexy cast are already wandering around the stage, strewn with late-Seventies miscellanea. A glamorously dressed woman (Monetta Maier) changes her clothes as a shirtless man (Gene Gallerano) wanders about operating a camera on a live feed to one of three projection screens in the theatre. Before the show even begins, the main character, Erwin/Erwina (David Holmes), a gay man-cum-transsexual, is subjected to a savage beating in the dressing room, partially visible upstage and otherwise projected.

I was concerned at the beginning that the performances would be weak; as the play opens, Erwin is subjected to another savage beating in his apartment by his lover Christoph (Jorge Rubio), but the scene was almost completely lacking in intensity. Fortunately, Holmes pretty quickly hit his stride, and by the end (which was unfortunately rushed to accommodate the next show in the schedule), his withering before the relentless gaze of an interviewer’s camera was painful to watch.

The unfortunate thing about the show was that it offered so little for the actresses. Kira Davies, who played Erwin/a’s hooker friend Red Zora, did a nice job in the few moments she was allowed, but her longest scene involved having simulated sex with Erwin/a’s long-time love (also played by Gallerano). Maier, listed as the “movie star,” has no lines in the entire show, and though she did a fine job performing a slow, self-destructive break-down over the course of the piece, the work’s inability or refusal to direct the audience’s focus meant that a lot of it was just plain missed. And Jennifer Blair-Bianco’s drug-fueled breakdown halfway through left her playing a set-piece for the second half as the stripper dressed as an angel passed out on the floor.

In the end, From Dawn till Night doesn’t really seem to stand on its own without knowledge of the film or Fassbinder’s life (make of that what you will), but it still manages to be compelling.

In contrast, Irish playwright Dermot Bolger’s The Parting Glass is the very definition of a well-made one-man play: tightly packaged, well performed, but ultimately forgettable. It’s structured as a long monologue delivered to the audience by an Irishman named Eoin as he waits about the Dublin airport. There’s pathos (a dead wife and father-son issues) and socio-political relevance (it tracks the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger) wrapped around a central through-line that doubles as a metaphor (the eternally cursed performance of Ireland’s national soccer…er, football…team).

The Parting Glass is a sequel to Bolger’s 1990 show In High Germany, and tracks the fate of Eoin and his friends over the intervening two decades. In 1990, Eoin and two friends had emigrated from Ireland in search of better opportunities than their perpetually depressed homeland could offer. In 2010, Eoin’s long since returned to what seems a new, transformed country, which soon enough kills off his wife and wipes him out financially when the long-overdue change in Ireland’s financial fortunes turns out to be little more than the calm before the next storm.

Ray Yeates, the artistic director of axis, Ballymun, and the man who originated the role of Eoin in the US 20 years ago, is experienced enough to deftly handle his character’s emotional rollercoaster, and aside from an over-reliance on using complex metaphors as comic punchlines, Bolger’s script is tight. But in the end, we’ve all seen this solo show too many times before, and The Parting Glass lacks any real nugget to make it stand out from a crowded field.

Last, I caught Au Ments Theatre Co.’s Tales of the Body. A one-woman movement piece performed by Andrea Cruz, for all its charm it never really seemed to go far enough in any direction to make it notable. As the show opens, Cruz unpacks herself from a crate (a nice if predictable sort of trick for a butoh artist) dressed in 1920s or ’30s clothes, and performs a series of phrases set to pre-war French torch songs and the like. Later on, there’s a duet with a desk lamp operated as a puppet, a series of sculptural tableaux set to an electronic soundtrack, and some games with lights. But despite its name, the show has fairly little to do with the “body,” other than the fact there’s one onstage. While one section or another can be cute or charming or even occasionally visually arresting, in the end it didn’t add to much and the choreography never delved deeper than superficial imagery.

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