AN EVENING WITH WILLIAM SHATNER ASTERISK
An Evening With William Shatner Asterisk tackles the human condition with a video actor
by Katherine Craft
Culturemap / Austin
Underneath all of the layers of technology
lies a very human frustration
with the inarticulateness of language and the vagaries of defining the human existence.
Two large stationary screens and one smaller screen mounted on a wheeled, human sized cart rest on the stage at the beginning of An Evening With William Shatner Asterisk at Fusebox Festival. A woman in an oversized suit sits quietly on a chair upstage. A large white square tapes off the stage. Static fills the screens and what sounds like a sped up heartbeat fills the room.
William Shatner’s name is in the title, but it’s Captain James T. Kirk who emerges from the static. Here is his handsome, noble face on the screen. It’s important that it’s Kirk instead of Shatner because Kirk is a trustworthy emissary, a character who represents a certain kind of integrity and passion. It’s the Captain, on the deck of his ship, before Shatner went on his journey to irrelevance and back again. He tells us he is here from the future to talk to us about science and art
“Talk” isn’t quite right. Every single word Kirk says was isolated as a single video frame from the Star Trek series and then strung back together to form new sequences of audio/visual sentences. It’s not Captain Kirk talking to us smoothly from the screen, it’s a collection of images and sounds that have been put together to convey an idea.
He says, “It may be a bit confusing at first,” which sounds more like, “it MAY be CONfusing… AT first,” and the audience laughs because the video’s chopped up monologue does not resemble human speech rhythms in the slightest. It does not even sound like Shatner’s signature rhythmic strangeness. While the words are all there in the right order, they’re plucked from other pieces of dialogue and can be so jarring put back together that they cease to make much sense to the ear.
The creators must have realized this because the two large screens on either side provide helpful subtitles. At times the written words, the images and the audio can be too much to process all at once. Toward the end of the piece, the subtitles disappear and it’s almost a relief to just listen and watch without them.
The Fusebox website describes this creation as a puppet, but it might be more accurate to call it an oracle. A puppet implies that it’s being manipulated in the moment, but everything the video does was obviously constructed and assembled ahead of time. The one live actor adds a spontaneous physical layer to the performance by wheeling the video cart around the stage throughout the performance; the video itself, however, feels very static. Even when Video Kirk toys with the audience’s expectations, it’s a premeditated moment.
While ostensibly, Video Kirk is explaining art and science, the theme he comes back to again and again is binary categorization. In five sections, he attempts to lay out the difference between art and science, savage and civilized, expected and unexpected, and life and death. Since each is defined by the other, the explanations become convoluted, repetitive explorations of concepts that cease to make sense the more they’re dissected: “Art is art because not everybody understands art.”
The video pauses about halfway through and the actor begins to speak into a microphone. Any relief at hearing a live human voice is short-lived, however, because she’s speaking in Japanese and also gets subtitles. She talks about moving to Austin as a student and becoming interested in drag queen culture. She explored being a man dressed as a woman and as she says, “People wouldn’t talk to me until they knew what I was.” They needed the comfort of fitting her into a gender binary.
This piece tries to pick apart the notion of the self by creating a “self” out of assorted clips that philosophize that the self is actually a set of patterns. Put enough patterns together and we construe a personality. Indeed, by the end of the piece, Video Kirk seems to have a personality of his own even if he doesn’t feel remotely human.
In the grand finale, the section where Video Kirk is supposed to lay it all out for us, he instead pleads difficulty by saying that there are no words for what he needs to tell us. These binary concepts don’t exist in the future so how can he possibly explain what’s replaced them? This could feel like a cop-out until you consider that if you traveled five hundred years back in time, how would you explain twenty-first century philosophical ideas of the self to a culture that had no frame of reference for them?
The experience of watching An Evening With William Shatner Asteriskcan be exhausting, but it’s also exhilarating to see the medium exemplify its own message so perfectly. Phil Soltanoff (director), Rob Ramirez (systems designer), and Joe Diebes (writer) have created a rich thought piece unafraid to tackle large philosophical questions while also gently mocking its own attempts to unravel them. Underneath all of the layers of technology lies a very human frustration with the inarticulateness of language and the vagaries of defining the human existence.
Under the Radar Review; LA Party
HERE Arts Center, New York, New York:
Engaging story telling matched with innovative low-tech but high-concept special effects.
That pretty much sums up LA Party, a 40 minute Spalding Grayish monolog delivered with zest by the entire cast and crew. A skilled narrator, an attentive camera person, a guy laying on the floor, a minimalist keyboardist, and a woman sitting in a chair with duct tape covering her eyes and mouth all work together to tell the story of one man’s fall from monastic-vegan/raw-food-purity into a night of drug induced hedonism and guacamole consumption.
The text alone is entertaining enough, one of our favorite punchlines was the girl he meets on a vegan dating website who turns out to be bulimic, but with the generous helpings of d.i.y. special effects the words take on a life of their own. We have seen similar technics in museums and art galleries, but never executed with this level of competent coordination on stage. The level of drug-reality verisimilitude is so high that we found ourselves experiencing minor flashbacks.
The show takes you on a trip (pun intended) slowly stripping away one device at a time, until the author is directly communicating with the audience without any affectation. And that’s what we took away from this very funny and tender show; you have you peel away at your own facade to find out who you really are, or you just have to do a lot of drugs, or maybe both.
Life is messy, and no one can stay a prisoner of their own purity forever, especially when psychatropic drugs are involved.
Conceived and Directed by Phil Soltanoff Written by David Barlow
Presented by HERE Arts Center
I/O: Joe Diebes and Phil Soltanoff
Austin Studios: Stage 5
Fuse Box performance: closed April 15
by Andy Campbell
As part of Refraction Art’s Fusebox Festival, Phil Soltanoff (an experimental theater practitioner) and Joe Diebes (a New York-based sound artist), along with a troupe of a dozen or so performers, presented I/O, an investigation into the matrices of the organic and the technologic. The work was performed in a large warehouse belonging to Austin Film Studios (née Mueller Airport Hangar). The performers, dressed in their street clothes, appeared shortly after the large studio doors were opened to an anticipating crowd outside. Slowly and confidently, the performers lined up in the liminal space between indoors and outdoors. Then, they began to breathe. Traveling quickly through the wireless microphone headsets to a tangle of chord and computer existing in the middle of the warehouse, the sounds of the performers’ breath were transformed by Diebes via laptop into a fugue of human exhalation, and then broadcasted over the many speakers dotting the massive space.
I/O is a collaborative work in the purest sense. All of the sounds emanating from the multiple speakers during the three performances April 13, 14 and 15, were created in-house and in the moment. Thus, the improvised aural tapestries Diebes developed were interwoven with the task-oriented movement of Soltanoff’s troupe. The performers—I dare not call them strictly dancers for there were some very operatic moments—were no doubt given, as with any great improvisation, a set of rules. Rules are boundaries that exist, much like the liminal space between indoors and outdoors, to restrict and are only effective because they can broken. But the performers rarely seemed to break. In fact, their commitment to the ensemble was so strong that even the audience felt part of it. Circling like satellites, we moved freely in the large hangar, letting intuition and will guide our movement choices. It’s rare that an interactive artwork actually manages to involve the audience in a meaningful and entrancing way. It’s an astonishing effort, to be sure. And because I/O succeeds, it should be given credit as one of the premiere performance art events to grace this city in years.
The influences of I/O are multiple and the potential readings are multivalent. At one point, the performers run together as a clump around the massive soundstage, which called to my mind Kathy Duncan’s Running Out of Breath, in which Duncan, decked in street clothes, jogged until she literally ran out of breath. Such task-oriented performance is the backbone of I/O. Rather than resting on this premise, I/O takes it one step further. The ubiquitous speakers (raised on tripods) become principal performers as well; performers often treated the speakers as their analogue doppelganger. Although these stereophonic sentinels don’t have the convenience of a body that can move and articulate, the I/O performers make you aware of what incredibly expressive creatures speakers can be. The speaker often seems to be talking, or singing to us when we listen to the radio. But who ever talks back? The I/O performers do. The relationship between performer and speaker more emulates the relationship between an actor and a mask. A mask, once inhabited by an actor, works upon the actor and not the other way around. Here the speakers seem to be the prime mover, with the humans, occasionally, seeming incidental.
Soltanoff, Diebes and their collaborators (both analog and organic) presented an entranced audience something meditative and moving. It left the question “Technology, do we need it?” in the dust and asked a much more vital set of questions: “Technology, where do we take it? Where does it take us?”
Andy Campbell studies contemporary art/history at The University of Texas at Austin.
Fuse Box fest ignites
By Jeanne Claire van Ryzin | Monday, April 16, 2007, 02:15 PM
Joe Diebes and Phil Soltanoff took the audience on a charming yet also mesmerizing and thought-provoking little journey Friday night at a massive sound stage at Austin Film Studios, the first night of the indie arts festival Fuse Box brought to you by the folks at Refraction Arts.
Diebes and Soltanoff dubbed their piece ‘I/O’ after the computer technology abbreviation for input/output. Concerned with the most basic ways people physically interact with technology, Diebes and Soltanoff staged ‘I/O’ last summer in New York and plan to stage another iteration of the piece next year in Europe.
Diebes, a New York sound artist, and Soltanoff, New York theater director, are onto something with ‘I/O.’ And I’ll follow.
Mother Nature got in on the collaboration Friday. As if on cue, gusts of wind blew and lightning cracked just as sliding doors rolled open to the audience assembled outside, revealing eight performers under sparse lightning each standing in front a speaker.
Dressed in casual street clothes and sporting wireless microphone headsets, the performers each began to utter delicate breathing noises. Those utterances were then instantly recorded by Diebes, a New York sound artist, who sat at a console laden with equipment in the middle of the sound stage. The recorded sound was then electronically sampled, mixed with other sounds and projected on top of the live sounds of the performers.
That fugue-like patterning of sound grew in complexity as performers, changing their breathy utterances to spoken or sung words, re-arranged themselves and their speakers throughout the massive space. The audience was invited inside, at first standing in a self-conscious group around Diebes and his console. But then as the 45-minute piece evolved, people splintered off and wandered freely, as if they felt invested in being a part of the theatrical action.
As the sound grew in aural intricacy into a lush wall of hauntingly lovely music, the actions of the performers gained complexity. Again neat fugue-like patterning came into play as the performers crisscrossed the sound stage, jogged around its edges, issued each other commands for various movements and toted their speakers now and again, the action building in speed and in density.
It ended where it began, in a contemplative hush. But what a sweet ride.
The London Times
January 13, 2006
More or Less Infinity
The 2006 edition of the London International Mime Festival has got off to an auspicious start with the latest work from Toulouse-based Compagnie 111. More or Less Infinity is just the sort of playful, stimulating and wordless visual theatre that the festival has been championing for close to three decades. Watching it is like having your eyes and brain tickled for 70 minutes.
The production is the third part of a trilogy exploring interactions between people, objects and movement in one, two and three-dimensional space. The two previous pieces concentrated on the cube and the plane. The focus of Infinity is the line in all its variety — straight, curved, actual, virtual and human.
Steered by the American director Phil Soltanoff, the show is episodic, witty and often mesmerising. Near the start several neat rows of white rods descend slowly, like icicles, from above the stage. These free-floating wands assemble into various configurations — a giant X, a gaping maw. When a low, stark light passes before them they suggest a forest casting shadows behind itself.
It is not long before people, or selective parts of them, begin to appear. Arms sprout from discreet grooves in the floor; they are another kind of line, as are the fingers of each hand.
The tone waxes comic and a tad bizarre. A lone male head connects with a body bent over ostrich-like into the floor. Another man rests his head upon an arm that scampers behind him down to his ankles, scratching as it goes. Such sight gags give way to new, athletic forms of pole dancing, suggesting both diversion and aggression.
Clad in business suits, the six performers carry and walk about upon bendy, rubber-tipped poles like office workers testing unknown skills. The lone woman turns the tables on the tentacular poles that threaten her. One man spins on a U-shaped pole while another wields one like a huge, hard yet undulant spaghetti noodle.
The show thrives on crack timing and the element of surprise. Long poles suddenly swing down like pendulums in a perfectly calibrated, canonic style. A clever shadow dance segues into slow-motion pole vaulting.
Towards the end one actor hauls away the enlarged video image of his face, and a glow-in-the-dark string figure is unravelled like a mummy. The performance stays on the surface, but the play of ideas — about socialisation, perception and identity fragmentation in the digital age — makes for some dazzling fun.
The London Times
January 9, 2006
All quiet on the West End front
Actions always speak louder when it comes to the London Mime Festival
Whatever you do, don’t expect white-faced whimsy. The 2006 London International Mime Festival is all about sex, geometry and the art of manipulation, says its co-director, Helen Lannaghan. “That pretty much covers it, unless you add masks. And whips. No, not whips. I’ve flipped.”
Jokey self-deprecation is par for the course as Lannaghan and her fellow director, Joseph Seelig, gear up to present more than two weeks of the best physical and visual theatre they can lay their hands on.
The main link between the 15 shows on offer this year is that most feature little or no text. Beyond that, the field is wide open in terms of style and content.
Now in its 28th season, the festival kicks off on Wednesday with More or Less Infinity, by the French Compagnie 111. This dazzling entertainment was conceived by Aurélien Bory, a former student of physics and architectural acoustics turned actor, juggler and director, and directed by the American musician and experimental theatre-maker Phil Soltanoff.
Ideal for a digital age, Infinity is all about the line. The performance begins with a mid-air ballet for a neatly ordered field of white rods that hang above the stage like magic wands. A six-strong ensemble in business garb pole-vault with extraordinary grace. A couple of them dematerialise into a martial-arts shadow play or figures that approximate a live version of a video-arcade game. Although its technological tools are relatively simple, they are deployed with wit and sophistication.
Bory met Soltanoff in the late 1990s when the latter was conducting a workshop in Toulouse. “I was teaching a way to think about space and time as an actor without necessarily thinking about the psychological rules of the theatre,” says Solantoff, “and yet you could still come up with things that are full of feeling. I’d been struggling with this approach for years. Aurélien got it instantly. We’ve taken off from there.”
For Soltanoff, good theatre is about “writing meaning on what you see. I’m an ardent people-watcher. I love to sit in a park, watch someone go by and imagine their inner monologue or observe some gesture of theirs that triggers something in me.”
While Bory derives much of his theatrical inspiration from physics, some of Soltanoff’s ideas have been adapted from his appreciation of cyclical modern music. “There are tricks I learnt from Philip Glass and Steve Reich,” says the man who listened to Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians every day for two years. “I’d put it on and hear different ways of cutting up rhythm and time, different ways to make a little story. Eventually I asked myself, what if I did that with staging? I then built a whole series of performance pieces using different minimalist approaches, and some of them just kicked butt.”
Clearly the festival’s concept of mime is not just kids’ stuff. The dark slant of Compagnie 111 can also be seen in what Lannaghan calls “the rebirth of British puppetry in one of its finest vintages”.
She is referring to Faulty Optic’s Horsehead, a comic horror show featuring eccentric automata, mechanical sets and prerecorded and live video; a retrospective trilogy by Stephen Mottram that includes his haunting marionette fable The Seed Carriers; and Lowlife, a vital, Charles Bukowski-inspired examination of addiction by Blind Summit, an innovative young company who investigate puppet and human interaction.
The Daily Telegraph
It's mime - but not as we know it
Jasper Rees talks to the creators of one of the most intriguing events at this year's London International Mime Festival
To what art form does the following belong? From above a stage, a row of 13 metre-long sticks is lowered in rigid formation. Then comes another, and another, until there are six rows. Without any visible means, they start to dance, to describe beautiful but witty geometrical patterns in the space above the stage.
Soltanoff joined Bory after being impressed by his Compagnie 111
The lighting goes down and comes up. Now disembodied limbs emerge through evenly spaced grooves cut in the stage floor from one wing to the other. Arms and legs swap places. A head appears between feet. More darkness. Then figures start bouncing comically across the stage mounted on bendy poles of various lengths.
We have gone from puppetry without sticks to clowning to acrobatics, and the show is only five minutes old. The audience, at Les Gémeaux on the southern outskirts of Paris, is intoxicated, and in stitches, as a succession of trompe l'oeil effects, of visual puns and punchlines, of linear sight gags, defies any effort to slap a label on it. The title of the show - Infinity, More or Less - hints at the genre-defying slipperiness of the entertainment.
You could easily suppose you're at the circus, or a performance-art installation. Is this, you might well ask, what they're doing in contemporary dance these days? Or have you somehow strayed into the mind of a video-game designer?
The production opens this year's London International Mime Festival, which for the moment will do as an answer. It is the result of a partnership between Aurélien Bory, founder of the Toulouse-based Compagnie 111, and Phil Soltanoff, an actor-turned-director from Brooklyn who for the past 15 years has worked in the field of dance theatre (or "theatre dance", as he says).
They make an odd couple. Soltanoff, in his early fifties (he looks like the smaller, less well-paid double of George Clooney), is 20 years older, and speaks no French. This did not stop him accepting an invitation to conduct a workshop in Toulouse after a show of his made a huge splash at a theatre festival in Serbia 10 years ago. Bory, a former juggler, attended the workshop and was duly impressed.
A couple of years later he contacted Soltanoff in New York, where he runs the Mad Dog theatre company and an award-winning exhibition and performance space. "He brought a little model of a set he had designed," says Soltanoff. "He said, 'I've always been interested in doing something on a set that's impossible to act on. Do you want to work on this?'" Having seen a video of Compagnie 111's first show, IJK, Soltanoff agreed. They have been working together for five years.
The initial result of the collaboration was Plan B, which followed IJK to the mime festival. Infinity, More or Less, which premièred in Toulouse in September, completes a loosely linked trilogy.
The division of labour is specific. Bory works with the half-dozen performers he has gathered about him, all of them refugees from the circus who wanted to work in the less constricting environment of the theatre. Together they come up with the piece's content. "I have the first decision, which is the concept," says Bory, "and Phil has the last. Phil has the final cut." As director, Soltanoff is its eyes and ears in the auditorium, ensuring that it retains the tautness required to make it work.
Where the first two pieces explored the spatial possibilities of, respectively, the cube and the flat plane, the new piece began as an investigation into linearity. Hence all those sticks and poles and grooves in the stage floor. Over a period of research and development, a series of living designs emerged in which line is presented as a direction, a path, a prison, or whatever the audience wishes to make of it.
Says Soltanoff: "I like the idea that people can investigate the piece in their own way but that the timing and elements of the piece are very precise."
Clearly the collaboration works: in each other, they have the jigsaw piece they were both looking for. "The world is chock full of people like me who consider themselves auteurs with limitations," says Soltanoff. "I like working with people who are better at certain things than I am. Aurélien's got a real design sense."
"There is no compromise," says Bory. "Phil doesn't try to make theatre to please people. He just trusts the work."
This may make it sound all mighty po-faced. But both of them are huge fans of Buster Keaton, and it shows. The jokes come thick and fast. Yet, for all its debt to a great American star of the silent screen, the piece never stops feeling quintessentially French. It has an insouciance, and an opacity, that you find in a lot of plotless French fiction.
Also, it clearly grew out of a subsidised artistic culture where it is possible, as Bory says he likes to do, "to spend two years in a room and see what happens". At college he studied the eccentric combination of physics and cinema, and seems to have hit on more or else the only field of work "where I have somehow found a way to use all these interests and references".
Could Soltanoff have created Infinity, More or Less in America? "Not a chance. The resources are not available. I've been in the trenches for a long time. I'm used to struggling with adversity and poverty and it doesn't bother me. I haven't worked on a project with this sort of budget in my entire life."
These star guests at the London International Mime Festival, which runs to the end of the month, are not sure if they actually fit the bill. "In French we use mime for a very specific definition," says Bory, "which is Marcel Marceau. It is not our work. For me it is theatre, but it is a kinetic piece: the movement of the body, the movement of objects. But maybe in England you use this word differently."
Whatever you call it, you will not see a more captivating piece of theatre this year.
- 'Infinity, More or Less' is at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1 (0870 380 0400), Wed-Fri.
The Daily Telegraph
January 13, 2006
An infinitely beautiful display
Dominic Cavendish reviews More or Less Infinity at Queen Elizabeth Hall
You will not see a more captivating piece of theatre this year," declared Jasper Rees in his interview earlier this week with the makers of the London International Mime Festival's opening show.
A grand claim, but, I can now attest, far from a mistaken one. Those who don't manage to see this show will, alas, have missed out on a thing of infinite jest and beauty.
Even Samuel Beckett, were he alive, might have been persuaded to endorse this abstract-minded act without words, which resembles his own experiments with light, space and repeated movement, taken to the nth degree.
If you had to grope for an elucidation of the show's meaning, it would be nothing more, or less, than man's place in the universe - the way, seen from a cosmic, comic angle, we are but tiny dots in the vast matrix of existence.
But such a description gives little idea of the minute-by-minute playfulness that the Toulouse-based Compagnie 111 and New York avant-gardist Phil Soltanoff have poured into their collaboration.
The principal components of their meticulous, mathematical endeavour are lots and lots of white, vaguely luminescent rods - big ones, small ones, some as tall as the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Tough and sturdy, yet also magically malleable, these strange staffs initially dance before our eyes in simple, mutating formations, like a giant, manually operated computer screensaver. They silently shuffle together, yawn apart, slant this way and that, trickle down like beads in a kaleidoscope.
Little by little, all kinds of kooky electronic sounds begin to assail our ears, and we're introduced to the players - five men, one woman, all in smart business clothes - who make ingenious, imaginative use of the rods: turning them into crutches, stilts, pogo sticks, skipping ropes, even gondoliers' poles.
But it's as though these objects have a life of their own, while the impassive performers have the quality of automata. Lighting effects transform them into robotic shadow-puppets; multiple parallel slits in the stage allow parts of them to disappear, or act as tracks along which they are sent surreally whizzing like balls in a bowling alley or streams of Dada-esque data.
The whole mesmerising spectacle leaves you quite speechless, thrilled and not a little chilled by art's ability to evoke the footling detail and limitless immensity of creation.
of Moving Bodies
New York City's experimental scene is overrun
by spin doctors of text—cynical manipulators looting language
for easy irony or manic effects, empty visual formalists pulling
the wool over our eyes. Brooklyn-based mad
dog can run sensual circles around this cabal of deconstructivists.
In its 1999 bare-bones staging of Peter Handke's word score The
Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other, 10 barefoot actors executed
inventive entrances and exits in an open playing area marked off
by tape. Some of the text, comprised exclusively of stage directions,
was heard in a voice recording, enveloped by electronic sounds of
street noise, bird calls, navy-ship whistles, irate phone conversations,
children laughing and Latin jazz.
Mad dog's dance-theatre works are sexy meditations on the physicality
of urban bodies in motion. To whom it may concern, the troupe's
bewitching signature work, was a site-specific response to John
theory of happenings. In a vacant office space on the 15th floor
of a Wall Street building, 12 men and women in corporate suits and
running shoes, each sadly clutching a bouquet of flowers, portrayed
a sea of ordinary humanity: wake up, go to work, work, party at night
and return home. The Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, says director Phil Soltanoff, "has been a huge
influence on how I've thought about space, sound and the making of
signs. The slight movement of a line in Mondrian's painting, the
lines connecting to become a form, the color blue moving into a wider
blue—I find these little changes to be huge adventures."
Similarly, mad dog roves freely through inspiration and close observation,
new technologies and colliding media, rhythmic patterns and hybrid
shapes. A self-taught musician and composer who teaches at Skidmore
College, Soltanoff says that the ensemble is immersed in a search "for
what theatre can communicate in a pure way-a theatre without language."
The company is in residence at five myles, a gallery and performance
center in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn that Soltanoff and
puppeteer Hanne Tierney created in 1999. Lately, however, mad dog
pieces have been too large-scale for its headquarters, so company
members develop new works at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in
Massachusetts. And mad dog has taken the international plunge, teaming
up with the French acrobats and jugglers of the Toulouse-based Compagnie
111 to create Plan B, which wowed kids at the New Victory Theater this
LEMnation—mad dog's latest work-in-progress, inspired
by the sci-fi writings of Stanislaw Lem—could be called a sonata
for live actors, Ken and Barbie dolls, and camera projections. But
that would make it seem too esoteric. Trickery, snootiness and ennui
are nowhere on display. "We're not trying to pull a fast one on an
audience," says Soltanoff. "Mad dog is much more innocent. It's much
more serious—not smug."
The New York Times
October 14, 2004
THEATER REVIEW | 'PLAN B'
A Wall That Brings People Together Through Laughter
very ingenious wall is at the playful heart of ``Plan B,'' the
season-opening show at the
New Victory Theater.
Basically a silvery structure, though lighting alters its
appearance, the wall is a playground
for four agile and acrobatic men who are first seen dressed for
a day at the office. In the
course of the show, the wall, equipped with trap doors and
sliding panels that sometimes
serve as steps, handholds and windows onto mischief, changes
At 45 degrees, it serves mainly as a slide. At 90 degrees, it
becomes a challenge to climbers;
and placed flat, it becomes the mirror of a brilliantly funny
slow-motion kung fu battle in
which the performers seem to soar through the air, kicking and
hacking, when, in fact, all
they are doing is sliding and turning while lying down.
The variations on the theme that is the wall include juggling,
clowning and acrobatics
enhanced by atmospheric lighting and music that ranges from rumbling
to rock in a show
that transports the performers from the earth to the stars and
the audience from the cares of
the day to laughter and applause.
This 70-minute intermissionless and wordless presentation of ingenious
physical theater is
running through Oct. 17, intended for audiences 8 and older and presented
111 of Toulouse, France, and directed by Phil Soltanoff.
With ``Plan B,'' a new season at the New Victory is off to a winning
TimeOut New York
September 30, 2004
Compagnie 111 and Phil Soltanoff explore geometric planes in Plan
Their bewitching collaboration Plan B is a full-evening
work that, while defying categories, approaches theater as visual
art. At first, the piece’s subject, the geometric plane, seems
deceptively dry. Yet with their disparate backgrounds, the collaborators
transform it into something magical. The second piece in a trilogy
about space (the first, IJK, focused on volume, while the
third, More or Less, Infinity, will examine line), Plan
B features an enormous plane that shifts from a 45-degree wall.
Four men wearing business suits attempt to conquer the colossal set
using the sheer force of their bodies--- and when that doesn’t
work, bungee cords and Velcro suits--- but each time they master
the rules, the décor transforms into something else, thereby
introducing a new set of physical challenges. “The four guys
in Plan B are in a situation where there is no second chance,” Bory
explains. “They have to adapt to a new world or die.”
But there is nothing violent about the witty work, which opens at
the New Victory Theater Friday 1. Rather, as its setting and mood
continually evolve, the piece is a breath of fresh air, childlike
without being childish. “I wanted the subject of the work,
which is the geometric plane, to also be the object,” says
Bory, who is the troupe’s scenographer and conceptual designer. “The
scenery proposes endless possibilities for the performers. It can
propose anything---to be up, to be down, to jump everywhere.” Beginning
and ending with a solitary figure strumming gently on a guitar, Plan
B incorporates gravity-defying acrobatic movement, video, juggling
and, most important, the collaborators’ vivid imaginations,
landing at the intersection of low and high art. “I’m
not afraid of humor, and at the same time, I’m versed in contemporary
technologies and ideas,” Soltanoff says. “I’m hoping
a piece like this can bring ideas from downtown and uptown theater
to one place. I want to get at something larger without it becoming
pretentious. I’m very much into a generous kind of experimental
work--- not work that alienates an audience, but that actually allows
and audience to dance with it.”
Soltanoff met Bory, who runs Compagnie 111 with Olivier Alenda (they
both perform in Plan B), in a 1998 workshop. “Aurelien was
one of the participants,” Soltanoff recalls. “He came
to New York about a year and a half later with a model of the set
and an idea he had for the piece. He asked me if I wanted to direct,
and I agreed. I’ve been working a lot with ways to approach
acting other than psychological realism. These guys are from a circus
background, but their heads are in a place of contemporary movement
and visual art and design so it was an interesting idea of hybrid
forms meeting. It turned out to be a great gig.”
Compagnie 111’s approach, according to Bory, isn’t
a distillation of theater, dance or circus, but something that touches
the best aspects of all of them. “I prefer to talk about the
tool we use, which is simply a stage with an audience in front of
it,” he says. “If people ask, ‘Is this theater?
Is this dance?” I am very pleased because it means that the
work is on the border, and that is a dream. To be on the border is
the best situation because the audience doesn’t know what to
A student of both physics and architectural acoustics, Bory also
adores cinema; Plan B incorporates striking video work, which plays
with the audience’s perceptions, and also contains sly references
to movies, from Keaton and Chaplin to kung fu. “For me, Plan
B is actually very American,” Bory says. “It is about
dreams and American dreams are movies.”
For Soltanoff, who is currently working with the company as director
on the final installment of the trilogy, Plan B doesn’t
boil down to one theme. “It’s a stage poem, it’s
a piece about gravity, and it’s a story of human endeavor,” he
says. “ It’s the tale of what a geometric space can be
about. There’s also a Beckett aspect to it---four guys face
a common problem and just when they get good at it, the problem changes.
That’s what life is about.”
Arts & Weekend / Art, music & theatre
Theatre: Plan B
Overheard on the way out of the Queen Elizabeth Hall - Woman (slightly
wheedling): "That was quite good, James"; Man (with the
petulance of a nine-year-old): "It was rubbish and boring."
Well, whoever you are, James, you have the soul of a breeze-block.
Toulouse-based Compagnie 111's Mime Festival offering, Plan B, was
indeed quite good. That's "quite" in the sense of entirely,
The first phase doesn't promise much. A quartet of men slide repeatedly
down a brushed-steel plane inclined at 45 degrees. Their paces and
poses vary, but it's fundamentally a one-note riff. Then little ledges
and trapdoors begin to appear and disappear, and the performers tumble
around in a slow-motion gymnastic routine. From there, it keeps getting
stranger and more wondrous.
The plane moves to the vertical, but the performers brace against
each other and move around on it as if it were just another floor;
much later, it falls flat, and the horizontal image is video-projected
on to the back wall, so that the players appear to be leaping and
spinning in air when in fact they're throwing shapes on the ground.
It's as if an M.C. Escher print had come alive, with folk casually
strolling around in planes all at right angles to one another. The
first simple demonstration of gravity has slowly built to a kind
of physical jazz that affirms, suspends and somehow syncopates gravity
The brilliantly versatile design of Aurelien Bory (who also has
a nice line as the gangling comic butt in performance) is augmented
by Stephane Ley's sound design. It seems as if the entire plane is
miked up, so that clumps and thuds provide a rhythm to the proceedings.
In the ball-juggling sequences (these are to conventional juggling
what the rest of the show is to conventional mime), the sound of
the balls bouncing builds up into polyrhythms, embroidered with echo
One of the "floor" sequences is accompanied by deliberately
clichéd martial-arts movie sound effects.
There's a great joy to Plan B. It's not just that we share in the
cunning of the visions and stunts, but that amid all this playfulness,
profound and basic feelings are conveyed. There are things in this
world, like gravity and dimension, that are immutable; we can fantasise
around them, we can pretend, and in our imaginations we can soar;
but at bottom, the reality is every bit as wondrous too. This is
apparently the second part of a planned trilogy. I can't wait.
Mundo De Catalunya
BARCELONA—A different spectacle, wholly and completely unknown
in Spain. An abstract theater proposition that shuns text and looks
for its expression in other stage languages. These are the identifying
signs under which the staging of Plan B is presented, and
it can be seen today, tomorrow and the day after in the Ovidi Montllor
hall of Montjuic.
The performance, a staging by the French Compagnie 111 arrives
at Grec 2003 under the direction of New Yorker Phil Soltanoff
and a team of seven performers that includes acrobats and jugglers. Plan
B is the second part of a trilogy about space, in which each
part has been staged by a different director. “Our intention
is to communicate with the public in a special way, through a work
that people will understand in very different ways,” explains
Aurélian Bory, artistic director of the company.
The production that Soltanoff creates on stage, and that arises
from a collective creative process where actors and technicians are
also participants, represents a reflection on pure geometric shape,
and what occurs when it is confronted by the imperfection of human
beings. “As an artist, the great question for me is what is
interesting to see. And in my case, particularly, I am interested
in the ideas of hybrid shapes and abstract language,” explains
Soltanoff. This is translated into a search for “new forms
of communication combining disparate types of language – circus,
theater, video, dance, music – and a setting aside of more
According to its creators, the scenic design basically results
in a staging that combines the motion of three planes – inclined,
horizontal and vertical. “The set is the center of the work,
the principal actor,” they point out, while at the same time
acknowledging that it is a “minimalist type of décor,
because we want it to be an abstract work.”
These statements notwithstanding, and in spite of not using a formal
narrative language, Soltanoff feels that his show has a formal unity
achieved through gesture and rhythm. “It is a one hundred per
cent theatrical work because I consider myself a theatrical director
who plays with other languages, like juggling.” The first part
of the trilogy, entitled IJK, premiered in September 2000,
while Plan B could be seen for the first time this past
January. The three-part series will be completed in the course of
December 3 to 9, 2003 - No. 418
The French Compagnie 111 / Phil Soltanoff
Mixes circus, Theater and Dance in “Plan
Between the laws of gravity and illusion, an exploration of the
relationship between juggling, acrobatics and the constraints of
It’s a super good plan, this Plan B. Of course,
it is not the first one devised – the famous plan A of directors
of detective or action films most often fails lamentably, and it
is necessary to hastily replace it with something else that will
do the job, a “plan B.” Certainly there will never be
a plan C. So too are the four acrobats and jugglers of Compagnie
111, Aurélian Bory, Olivier Al enda, Loïc Praud and Al
exandre Rodoreda, with whom Phil Soltanoff , the New York director
collaborates “in that state of spirit, action, hope and
fragility. Only with their plans…”
A small inclination on a surface plane, as it happens, a wall with
openings and projections, and it is the whole world that topples:
gravity is disturbed, as is our vision. Illusion brushes against
the reality of change, and sight vacillates continuously between
what is seen, and what is done under one’s eyes. Starting with
the Bergsonian postulate that mechanical imbalance creates comic
effect – falls, a perfect example, always make us laugh – the
performers’ slips, perilous runs and leaps onto vertical planes
shake up our customary perceptions.
The mind and eyes are delighted by the unexpected visual of these
bodies plastered to a vertical floor of varying inclination, and
bouncing off it…
But in the end it’s not just the human bodies that fall in
this Plan B. The wall itself collapses in a soft, air-stirring
crash that duplicates this plane, now horizontal, as a projection
screen defies sight-bound logic, and deconstructs for our eyes various
images, and the actions that produced them. How can we not weep with
eye-popping laughter during kung-fu scenes, and as Velcro costumes
cling to walls, or not fly to the moon when the performers juggle
with stars? It is as simple as that, actually, pleasure and enchantment:
contentment that both surprises and overwhelms. Everything participates
in this experience, musical juggling combined with the game of hide
and seek that reduces the trajectory of balls, to the scenic construction
that mimics the film-making process. Effects all the more striking
since, with regard to strict logic, they are resolutely specious.
The brazen ones…
Wednesday October 22, 2003
A COMPAGNIE 111 THEOREM
Bodies that slide over an inclined plane. Headfirst, carried by
the slope. Bodies in suits and ties. They appear at the top before
inexorably starting to fall… Dynamic young executives dragged
down by a declining stock market? A reference to September 11, 2001
? Or, more simply, the law of gravity – for there is a playful
dimension in these repeated downward slides; the slope, soon tamed,
becomes a space where they thrash about.
Some knock their heads against the walls: Olivier Al enda, Aurélian
Bory, Loïc Praud and Al exandre Rodoreda of Compagnie 111 prefer
to confront the implacable surface that is the plane. Their show
is entitled Plan B. It is the second part of the trilogy
that began with IJK, a creation dedicated to the cube, and
shown for the first time two years ago.
Intuitive and inspired, Plan B very cleverly constructs
an exploration of the variously angled plane, both as a geometric
shape and as a material surface. The plane is first an inescapable
element of the set that occupies a good part of the stage. The acrobatic,
juggling, and even musical actors overtake the plane little by little.
For this plane moves, and can even turn completely around. Trap doors
open on its surface, drawers burst out of it. “It is a matter
of incorporating the plane,” explains Aurélian Bory,
designer of the original project. “Therefore, it is, above
all, a work about space that we understand through acrobatics and
juggling. Rule number 1 was that there should not be any superfluous
element.” Light, soundtrack and motion are all combined in
a continuous interaction of impeccable precision.
For this second show, the company called on the New York director,
Phil Soltanoff . “You can’t be everywhere at once,” concedes
Aurélian Bory. “The agreement was that we would bring
our ideas, and he would have the final cut. That worked so well between
us that Phil must also direct our next show” (the subject of
which will be the line). Aurélian Bory thus concludes his
geometric obsessions. “I took an atypical course, a zigzag.
I studied physics, then I went through Arts et Métiers where
I worked on architectural acoustics. I also enrolled in the study
of film before going on to training in juggling in Toulouse. I realize
today that all that has served me in the making of Plan B.”
The plane – inclined, vertical, horizontal – also becomes,
in this spectacle, a plane projected onto a video screen. Like an
ultimate possibility, that of dream. The bodies of the actors evolve
on the ground, while their projected images seem to be completely
free from gravity. A magic moment on a background of starry sky.
Virtual flight, echoing other enchanting passages in this charming
spectacle, like the juggling sequence with the soundtrack secured
by the jugglers’ whimsical and rhythmic rebounding of balls.
Small, simple things, but effective, participating in the pleasure
of a delicate poetry. “As opposed to the circus, we do not
work on performance or know-how. We aren’t trying to display
difficult numbers, but to invent. What counts is virtuosity. For,
very often, simplicity is full of virtuosity.”
October 25, 2003
Circus. A spectacle built around
a slippery slope.
Compagnie 111’s Plan B
Theater of the Cité Internationale
Ordinarily, a juggler wears a tunic and oriental slippers. An acrobat,
spangles and fake cloth wings. Four business men in gray suits on
stage is refreshing. One of them slides on an inclined plane. Columns
of figures pile up on the screen in the background. Another joins
him and also falls. Ten minutes of a cushioned fall to electronic
tracks of [composer] Ryoji Ikeda.
At the beginning, Plan B is a slope oriented to 45 degrees.
Later on, it’s at 90 degrees, and a façade on which
the men run and cross in front of each other. Toward the end, the
front is reversed. It is the dark background of a film turned away
from the sky. The men are lying down, but appear to be standing on
the screen. Their movements have a spatial slowness. It’s difficult
to walk lying down!
Space research, surface and line, Compagnie 111’s Plan
B is built around this detachable, slippery structure. It
gives rhythm to the spectacle. Its mutations, like those of a gangrenous
body, give emphasis to divergences between these men in solidarity
or competition. The video embellishes the heavy body falls with
stock market tables. When, in front of that façade, a competition
of leaps occurs, it is impossible for these clowns to go higher
than anticipated. Without harnesses, (planks on wheels, covered
with Velcro…), the body would be injured. It reminds me
of l’Homme qui penche (The Man Who Tilts) by Thierry
Metz. Reaching the top of the plane requires a short ladder. Rivals
become partners. Much like the work of the choreographer Kitsou
Dubois, trampolinist Mathurin Bolze or the Metzger-Zimmermann-de
Perrot Swiss trio, Compagnie 111 abandons the tawdry finery of
the circus in order to nurture dance and theater.
The juggling balls are given sound-effects, the speech like that
of action films (Matrix, mangas, John Ford), and the movement
calculated to the millimeter.
The kung-fu sequence is the same: the slimmest performer knots
a tie on his forehead and hammers the confronting figure with blows
only the use of horizontal film-making makes possible. He breaks
the figure, but gets over it. And then sits down to read X Men
The Midi Dispatch
Tuesday, January 14,
Joy is in the plane
– Figures descend in a continual cycle,
stiff, arms apart, men flying at the Folon. Four men perched on a
narrow ledge pile up, walk and turn with dreamlike slowness. Four
disembodied hands pass white balls back and forth, wrapped balls
beat like drums. Spiderman fights Jackie Chan as Buster Keaton watches.
A man floats in the night and juggles celestial bodies… The
circus is decidedly one of the richest lines of renewal in contemporary
theater, and with “Plan B,” Compagnie 111 offers us a
Since its creation in 1999, Compagnie 111 has explored the theatrical
possibilities of acrobatics and juggling. Its very first show, “IJK,” the
first part of a trilogy, made use of the cube and the musicality
of the rebound. “Plan B,” the second part of that series,
explores the plane and the effects of gravity.
The playing field is, therefore, a surface – a fine plastic
object, moreover, obviously inspired by Constructivism (Didn’t
Kandinsky write, as an express fact, “Point and line on a plane”?) – mobile
and transformable, inclined, vertical or lying flat. All the work
is done in strict rapport with this wall, an imposed support more
than environment. Contact with it modifies the expected effects of
gravity, generates astonishing slow motions and disallows any recourse
to the easy spectacular, the too visible feat. We remain astounded,
as it were.
With its magical inventiveness, its dazzling technical perfection,
its humor and its poetry, “Plan B” makes us rethink the
dream of Icarus, and succeeds with a marvelous mixture of genres.
There is something of the circus, obviously. Thanks to the contribution
of New York director Phil Soltanoff , the acrobat jugglers become
actors, weaving scenarios, miming dramas – that’s theater.
It also involves dance, through the incorporation and mastery of
physics, and the rhythm and grace of movement set in space. There
is even music, generated by the sound of rebounds, spreading out
in rebounds of sound – vibration, reverberation, echo. And
finally, we find visual and videographic art, in the natural or invented
distortion of perspective, the play of light, the projections.
The surprisingly astonished actors were acknowledged with an enormous
stamping ovation (they [the audience] stamped instead of rising); “Plan
B” is pure theater joy – of which there are two rounds… of
111: Anyone for sonic juggling?
They somersault at impossible angles and defy the laws
of gravity. French troupe Compagnie 111 call it 'the poetry of mathematics'.
Jenny Gilbert on how to really have fun with physics
When setting out to fill the Queen Elizabeth Hall for three nights,
en route to a score of gigs around Europe and a month on Broadway,
you'd think it would help to have a name people can pronounce with
confidence. But for Aurelien Bory, founder of the Toulouse-based
theatre company 111, this isn't a priority. In fact, he rather hopes
people will make up their own version.
"In France we're usually known as Compagnie Cent Onze," he says. "In
Germany, it tends to be Hundert Elf. In London and New York, we're
One One One. Given that everyone takes away a different impression
of what we do, and given that our work nudges at the edges of so
many disciplines, I rather like the idea that even the name is free-floating."
So what is 111, however you choose to say it? "There are basically
three elements, which is where the 111 comes in," says Bory, unhelpfully. "To
a scientist, 111 represents one plus one plus one. If you want to
be prosaic you could say our shows are about juggling, acrobatics
and musicality. But you could equally say they're about the poetry
of mathematics, the poetry of natural laws as opposed to that of
the written word." This might sound fanciful until you clock Bory's
background as a physics graduate and student of architectural acoustics.
Then the term physical theatre takes on a new tilt: less of the theatre
and more of the physics. "Sonic juggling" - one of 111's many accomplishments
- is a far cry from what was once the staple fare of mime festivals,
yet 111 doesn't quite fit the "new circus" label either. The company's
latest production is directed by Phil Soltanoff, founder of New York's
radical theatre troupe Mad Dog, a man who, according to the members
of 111, "doesn't know a thing about circus, and really doesn't like
it". What Soltanoff does share with the Frenchmen, apparently, is
a fascination for "the theatrical potential of geometry".
Crammed into the back row of a packed Theatre de la Cite, on the
campus of the Sorbonne in Paris, I begin to see what he means. Plan
B - the title of the 75-minute show - is about the proximity of the
mysterious to the mundane. On a cunningly engineered set, it takes
that most basic of forms - a flat surface, a plane - and configures
from it all kinds of everyday objects. The slope of a roof, a door
and the wall of a house are ubiquitous features of all our lives
whose properties we have probably never questioned. Yet now, in the
theatre, we do.
When a stream of business-suited gents appear on the apex of a life-size
roof and slide down it at varying speeds, you find yourself wondering
about angles and surfaces, friction and velocity with an urgency
that evaded you when faced with GCSE Physics equations. And when
the same be-suited figures start to turn slow somersaults and backflips
while keeping bodily contact with the roof-slope, or create toppling
human towers which are no more in thrall to the laws of gravity than
a man lying flat on his back (or are they?), your brain begins buzzing
with questions. Surely on a rake of 60 degrees there must be gravitational
pull? But how much less than a man somersaulting in thin air, and
why? And while we're about it, what makes this impact-free spectacle
so spookily beautiful to watch? The show is one long spatial riddle
which entertains, puzzles, and ultimately conspires to confuse even
one's most basic instinct as to where is "up" and "down".
For Bory, the stimulation of grey matter is what distinguishes Company
111 from a circus act. "What we're saying is 'look at that', not
'look at us'. What we're doing is fieldwork, in a way, and we pass
on our discoveries. And because juggling and acrobatics are so strongly
governed by natural laws, investigating space by these means is a
way of questioning our personal relationship with it. Thus the physical
leads to the metaphysical, which is a questioning of our very existence."
Allusions to classics of cinema also add to the sense of connectedness.
There are references to Buster Keaton, Wim Wenders and even Bruce
Lee (in an almost kitsch kick-boxing scene, complete with authentic
sound effects). But the over-ruling influence is that of Melies,
the first ever French movie-maker and Bory's personal hero. "He was
a magician who used cinema principally to create magic effects. He
didn't want us know how he did it, but we take the opposite line.
We want to show that even when you know how it's done, the poetry
remains intact." Though Bory had always been interested in cinema,
he had never given a thought to theatre before the local circus school
in Toulouse offered him a grant to develop his ideas. The three other
guys in the group are all circus-school graduates, though Bory is
keen to play down their professionalism. "We're just people who happen
to be doing this. Sometimes we put 'mistakes' in the script because
it lends interest to things - a ball falls to the floor in rehearsal
and it creates an interesting problem, how will the performers retrieve
it while balancing a door between their stomachs? The most mundane
slip can open the door on a whole new gag. That's why we called the
show Plan B.
"I'm interested in the human element in juggling. If you treat mistakes
as an event - 'Oh, the ball's fallen. Oh, there goes another one'
- it's no longer a mistake, it's life."
December 24, 1996
It May Concern,
headily subtitled “a response to
John Cage's Silence,” casts a mesmerizing spell. This taut,
site-specific piece runs over 83 evocative minutes. An athletic
ensemble of 12 actors portrays multitudes of regular people. Waking
up in the morning, they walk out in a human stream, at first in
threes, with some lagging behind, others trailing off, and still
others trying to catch up in a hop-skip in a Muybridge-like film-strip
effect. Life is a time-killing procession of daily
rituals that give a semblance of order to chaos. Inside the square
confines of work, actors partner off and enact silly power games
using empty gestures and berserk movement. Partying at a late-night
disco, people dance, gyrate, trade cruisy glances, speak banalities,
form networks and crazy permutations. The expressive piece distills
myriad human interactions into endless loops. A lyric meditation
on the fierce geometry of ambition and desire, it resonates all
the stronger because it's performed in a loft like space in a skyscraper
in the financial district.
I Saw What You Did
BY ELIZABETH BANKS
To Whom it May Concern
A site specific performance in five parts
Presented by Gale Gates
Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and Mad Dog Productions
Conceived and directed by Phil Soltanoff
Choreographed by Debra Fernandez
Designed by Michael Counts
Costumed by Patty Pawliczak
Composed/navigated by Joseph Diebes.
I figured it doesn't get much more downtown than the fifteenth
floor of an office building on Broad Street, where I was drawn
by a listing promising "funky movement with soap opera scenes
and kindergarten chairs." Neither my sense of whimsy nor my
desire for something unique were disappointed by this entirely
original bastard child of Hamletmachine and Koyaanisqatsi.
Downstairs, the lobby of the office building
was filled with besuited men and women with blank faces, each
sadly clutching a small bouquet
of flowers as they waited. We arrived on the fifteenth floor to
find a single man with a briefcase standing in the middle of 3500
feet of unfinished office space, gazing into the distance as we
passed him on the way to our seats. In Part One, "Waking," the
man is joined by other men and women in smart suits and running
shoes, all gazing at that far horizon, illuminated by the morning
sun. Then it's time to go to work, and the soft flute and ambient
ocean music give way to a driving beat and subway noises, as all
twelve performers rush through the huge space in ever-changing
groupings in Part Two, "Going." For Part Three, "Working," the
audience is invited to move through the space toward six white
boxes outlined on the floor with white tape, each containing two
actors and a tiny orange chair. Each couple translates scenes from "One
Life To Live" and "As The World Turns" into wildly
kinetic dances, with their taped dialogue repeating as the characters'
passion and movements grow ever more frenzied. The lights on each
scene go out one by one, and we are drawn to one end of the space
to gather around an outlined dance floor For Part Four, "Partying." All
the workers are there, dancing, strolling, posing, scoping, flirting
to the pulsing music, but still with strangely blank faces. Again,
the intricate choreography repeats itself more and more wildly,
until, with the soundtrack shrieking "we're all going to hell," one
man loses control and leaps into the air where he is held by his
compatriots, screaming as they turn him around and around, until
the music suddenly shifts from industrial noise to a quiet ballad.
He slowly regains himself, and after they put him down, the wound
down characters disperse among the audience to tell us intimate
some wryly funny, some sad. One by one they disappear through the
crowd, until the audience has only itself to gaze at. In Part Five, "Returning," the
actors move slowly away through a field of red taillights, until
they are lined up with their briefcases as at the beginning, ready
to repeat the whole cycle on a new day.
Seldom have I seen a piece that seemed so whole-the rich sound
design, the incredibly specific movement, the vibrant, expressive
actors, the cyclical repetition of events, the magical transformation
of empty space into specific location, the right-on costuming;
even the management of an audience on its feet was nicely done.
Conceived as a response to John Cage's "Silence," the
piece demonstrates the mindless animal nature of existence, as
each person does what they must without knowing why..." they
do not seek to spy out their nature; and thus it is that things
come to life of themselves," which they certainly do in this
"The Yuppie Fairy Tale"
If we accept the thesis that the middle of this century was marked
by the famed, "American Dream," then the new myth for
the millennium would certainly be the "Yuppie Fairy Tale."
Being stiff and sterile, young and successful, and consequently,
rich, yuppies emerge as a symbol of contemporary civilization.
Accompanied by the deafening sounds of Joe Diebes' music (in which
techno-speed and ethnic rhythms intermingle), Phil Soltanoff creates
an exorcising performance about the new android, rather than human
race at the end of the twentieth century.
However, a benign repetition of clichés makes, To
Whom it May Concern, a primarily behavioral and finally grotesque,
illustration of the yuppie's daily rhythms.
In the lobby of the future National Bank, still under construction
on Slavia Square, the company called, Mad Dog, deconstructed
the automatism and uniformity of the everyday life of this new
breed. The yuppies are as plastic as the fake flowers they hold
which serve to somehow enrich their dwellings and work places.
From the mechanization of their walk while going to work, through
common arguments in the office, including sexual harassment and
lover's quarrels, to the climax at the party in the sizzling night
club, Mr. Soltanoff brings his yuppie beings, as well as the audience,
to a catharsis; Which is the eventual awareness of a longing for
ordinary, warm, human communication.
"From a Yuppie's Life,"
It is a paradox that the performance, "To Whom it May Concern," with
its reserved and strictly built structure, succeeds in making the
theater goer complete this theatre piece with their own unrestrained
associations, which was the director's main goal, inspired by John
Cage's theory of "happening." Actually, the paradox of
the show lies in its cool, cerebral, abstract structure, in contrast
with an immediate emotional reaction developed in the audience
during the show.
The fullest embodiment of this paradox is achieved capitally in
the paradigmatic scene called "Going," in which twelve
expressionless artists, dressed in career suits and briefcases,
endlessly repeat the geometrically stylized mechanical movements
of people going to work. Right when the unchanging, rhythmically
repeating movements become trance inducing, the drama occurs. Suddenly
and unexpectedly, one of the actors introduces a new direction,
disturbing the harmony of the "yuppie's" life. If we
let ourselves speculate, we could come to a conclusion that the
origin of a real and intense excitement caused by the disturbance
of everyday movements, can be found in the roots of drama itself.
The essence of drama lies in the disturbance of order, and the
contrast between an individual's goals and that of a group, doesn't
But, the "mutiny" doesn't last long. Shortly, those
new movements fit back into the old system, -the old mis-en-scene
, and the repetition resumes. If we continue using our imagination,
we could come up with the entire meaning of the show: the life
of the businessman and businesswoman in a modern world is so rigid,
sterile, and automated, that any attempt of spontaneous behavior
is doomed to fail.
But this analysis, based on the system of free association, should
not lead us to a misconception. The performance, "To Whom
it May Concern," doesn't aspire to point out important
truths or convey a critical attitude. It satisfies itself with
deconstruction of the phenomena of a "yuppie's" life.
Beside the second scene called, "Going," the performance
also covers all the important phases of the day of a "yuppie" :
Waking, Working, Partying, Returning. It is apparent that this
performance is a closed circular structure, which is in contrast
with the complete openness of its meaning. To simplify my explanation,
I would say that the performance deals with analysis while the
synthesis is left to the audience.
Finally, I'd like to emphasize that the best part of this show
is the coaction between the impeccable technical precision of the
performers and their genuine commitment.
I believe, for the company, " Phil Soltanoff and Mad Dog," the
best days are yet to come.
September 22, 1997
"A Day and a Night of a Yuppie."
The expression, "To Whom it May Concern," is a form
of address in business letters. The very fact that Phil Soltanoff
used it as the title of his play, reveals the milieu in which this
author and director from the United States deals in his latest
project. The milieu is Wall Street (N.Y.C.), with its almost uniformed
(both physically and psychologically) heroes--young, beautiful,
and elegant yuppies.
The first two scenes (out of five) are a true dedication to the
poetics of Bob Wilson, the legend of post avant-gardism, whose
legitimate successor, Phil Soltanoff and Mad Dog is said to be,
in the context of modern American theatre.
With a foundation of minimalism and repetition, this stage poem
builds its own esthetic based on precisely choreographed movements,
and a mantra-like score. Enormous suspense and energy emanate from
Soltanoff's use of repetition This, as well as, great expressiveness,
in juxtaposition with occasional poetic moments, and the superb,
dedicated artists-dancers, are the main attributes of this thrilling
In an instant, this performance recalled the glory years of BITEF,
showing that twentieth century theatre still carries a passion
for searching, and a hope to fulfill its mythic, political, and
Phil Soltanoff and Mad Dog demonstrated how a common topic such
as "alienation" could be approached with new, innovative
drive and above all ingenuity.
"The Sinful, Affectionate BITEF"
It was the third day of BITEF. The company, "Phil Soltanoff
and Mad Dog" was just about to start its performance in front
of the huge palace of the National Bank of Yugoslavia, still under
construction. Dressed like yuppies with briefcases in hand, twelve
members of the company paced before the building among the baffled
Belgraders. Then, both actors and audience entered the space and
the performance proceeded in its own, secure direction. It was
a depiction of the mechanical yuppie life, full of post-modern
stress, and enacted through the stylized movements of the American
performers. At one point, while performing the segment which symbolized
the yuppie party, the cast invited the willing Belgraders to join
them on stage. Though it was just a polite invitation, the Belgraders
immediately accepted it. At that point the cast was a little thrown
by the unexpected development of the situation. Suddenly they discovered
unfamiliar characters behind their backs. The audience was delighted
to cross that imaginary divide between themselves and the actors,
as their parts were dramatically exchanged.
What happened between the cast and audience, showed the similarity
between urban people who are courageous, impudent and charming
whether they live in the Big Apple or Belgrade.
No matter what really happened in this episode; whether it was
provincials finding solace in the global village, or the reality
of the intricate Balkan mentality whose passion and good humor
matched that of the New Yorkers, one thing was certain- it was
a night when Belgrade gave an unexpected theatrical response, reminding
us of the lost vigor of the bon vivant.
November 16, 1999
LENDING A HELPING HANDKE
THE HOUR WE KNOW NOTHING OF EACH OTHER
BY PETER HANDKE
556 St. John’s Place, Brooklyn, 718-783-4438
How you feel standing before, say, a geometric
composition by the abstract painter Piet Mondrian may give some
indication of your tolerance for the Austrian-born playwright
Peter Handke. Both artists rigorously interrogate the fundamental
definitions of their respective aesthetic forms. While the philosophical
implications of their work are easy enough to grasp, the subtleties
of texture and light are somewhat more challenging to appreciate.
The ideas behind Offending the Audience—Handke's
paradigmatic early play in which four actors reel off a litany
of what their audience is not going to experience—may still
make for provocative discussion, but it takes a rarefied sensibility
to want to sit through it twice.
All credit then to Mad Dog's New York premiere of Handke's The
Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other at Five Myles in Brooklyn, a
production I would gladly attend multiple times. The text, translated
by Gitta Honegger consists exclusively of stage directions, some
of which are played aloud on tape, though none are illustrated
in a literal-minded fashion. An ensemble of 10 barefoot actors
traipses-in and out of a playing area marked off by tape, as a
soundtrack mixes street noise and bird sounds with jazz and Latin
music. “One who could be anyone passes another who could
be anyone,” announces an unseen voice, underscoring the romantically
charged possibility of the title. It's not only prospective lovers
who are to-ing and fro-ing, but also refugees, shoppers, joggers,
pregnant women, merchants, even a guy on a skateboard.
While all this coming and going may seem to make for singularly
unpromising dramatic material, in the hands of director Phil Soltanoff
(who choreographed along with Debra Fernandez) the work attains
the kind of sensual suggestiveness of modem dance. The physically
eloquent cast moves with a determined vigor, their eyes fixed to
aerial points beyond them and only occasionally deigning to "cruse" their
fellow travelers. Solitary yet inextricably linked, they shift
in gracefully austere patterns that have a Mondrian-like sense
of beauty. If you look long enough you might just find unexpected
depth in the glistening shallows.
October 24, 2000
Five Myles and Crown Heights Do a Happy Dance
MAD DOG, HIP-HOP, AND HANDKE
Five Myles's gate is locked
to keep the boys out—because the girls are inside dancing.
So says proprietor Hanne Tierney with a teasing smile. The
blond theater artist, elegant in a charcoal gray outfit, holds
a portable CD player that's blasting out a hip-hop number
for the gyrating teens. These neighborhood kids are rehearsing
for their upcoming performance at the Brooklyn Museum, a show choreographed by a mom from the block. Outside
on St. Johns Place, in Brooklyn's predominantly black Crown Heights, a fire engine's lights blaze in the darkness and
sirens scream. Inside the warehouse turned performance space,
the younger girls from the street bob their heads and tap their
feet. So do director Phil Soltanoff and many members of Mad Dog, his troupe of 10 actors—all
white—who wait their turn on the wooden platform to rehearse
their new avant-garde collaboration, Strange Attractors.
The where, whats, and whys of
this motley scene are a puzzle—but the key is a photograph
on your left as you enter the large, concrete room. It shows
the midsection of two men striding down a street in Africa, hands clasped—one white, one black. Over it is painted
the legend MYLES TIERNEY. Myles, Hanne Tierney's son, is the
white man in the picture. A photojournalist for the Associated
Press, he was gunned down by rebel troops in Sierra Leone while covering the war.
So the venue is dedicated to
Myles (the fifth of his name in the family), but it's no do-gooder
memorial. Five Myles has had a complex and organic evolution. "I
was looking for a studio space," Tierney explains, "and
I never wanted a studio in an art ghetto."
One of Soho's original art pioneers, Tierney planned to share
the studio with Myles, who wanted to make a documentary about Africa.
The Crown Heights location was near the subway and cheap. With a friend
who now shares the building, she bought the cavernous former
warehouse in October 1998, intending it partly for performances,
her own and others'.
Did she have any idea the place
would become a neighborhood center, with half the block hanging
out there and carrying keys to the joint?
"Not at all!" she
laughs. "I would have run." But the block was curious,
so she was welcoming. "Then when my son died in January
1999—and it was his space—something extra bonded us, that he
was working in Africa." The first year, Five Myles focused on Myles's
interests, with events like an AP-sponsored photo exhibit called "Eyes
on Africa." Tierney also presented her "puppet" version of Salome—Wilde's
play, deconstructed, with the characters represented by swatches
of fabric, metal coils, and other materials. Mad Dog staged
Peter Handke's The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other. The Manhattan crowds crossed the bridge, and Five Myles capped its
season by winning an Obie grant.
Tierney and Soltanoff were "the
two Americans" at the Belgrade International Theater
Festival in 1997. It was there, Soltanoff says, where they
began to talk about creating a space for work like theirs,
which is not easily categorized. "The work I do is theater," he
explains, "but derived from movement rather than text." Strange
Attractors, which runs from October 12 to November 10,
uses patterns of street movements to investigate questions
of personal identity.
Tierney calls her own work "theater
without actors." Using a Jerome Foundation midcareer grant
she just won, she'll soon be mounting her next large work,
the first glimmers of which can be seen in her private studio
behind the main room. Hanging from the high ceiling beyond
a worktable laden with scissors, spangles, and thread are a
tier of red Chinese lanterns and a long drape of scarlet lace,
hung like a ball gown. This gaudy bit of fabric is "the
concubine" in How Wong-Fu Was Saved, a Chinese
tale turned into a short story by Marguerite
Wong-Fu should be up this season, along with such projects
as sculptor Richard Nona's exploration of the kayak form, Matt
Freedman's painting installations of Prospect Park, and a dance piece titled St
John's Place on
by block resident Prina Adams. Tierney's also been approached
by both BAM and the Brooklyn Museum for joint ventures.
Tierney laughs often, knowingly,
and alights ever so delicately on the terrain of her grief.
But many themes come together in this unlikely place: the nurturing
of children, the traversing of racial boundaries that was Myles's
passion, and the power of art to transform even the bleakest
of experiences. That, in any case, is how she understands the
tale of Wong-Fu, who, sentenced to execution, painted
himself into a boat and just sailed away.