The Cutting Ball Theater takes an admirable risk branding their theater showcase AvantGardARAMA! Most people who face an evening of avant-garde theater fear having to sit through a long, indecipherable, and pretentious play. That's despite the fact that we've been exposed to avant-garde devices like collage, cut-up and abstraction for years in the mainstream media landscape.
In this second AvantGardARAMA! (the first was in 2004), Cutting Ball mitigates these audience phobias with three simple yet crucial elements: short-form pieces, relevant scripts, and highly authentic acting.
Artistic director Rob Melrose fits three short plays written by American women into an hour-and-a-half program. Opening the show is avant-garde matriarch Gertrude Stein's Accents in Alsace, a Cubist portrait of a French sympathizer's family set in the title's French province during World War I. Written in 1922 during a highly creative early period for Stein in Paris, Accents has no character designations or line assignments, just words arranged on the page for individual theatre companies to interpret and realize.
Opening with this 12-minute piece serves two purposes. First, Accents' fragmented script makes the other two plays seem far more accessible to the audience than they would on their own. With that said, the writing does retain some relevance. As with much of her work, Stein draws her floating, chanted lines from real life -- in this case, what she heard as an aid-worker during the war. And sound and visual designer Cliff Caruthers's background video collage, ranging from rich flower fields to dire Iraq war footage, provides even more context.
Secondly, Accents offers historical context for the next two plays, written by contemporary avant-garde playwrights who've both publicly acknowledged Stein's influence. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, whose 20-minute Betting on the Dust Commander follows the Stein play, clearly adapted the grand dame's love of repetition and conversation with compelling panache.
An early play in Parks's career, Dust Commander finds Parks depicting an African-American couple in mid-century Kentucky going through the motions of domestic life. The dialogue, though fragmented and characterized by dropped pronouns, seems almost like a rhythmic chant made up of seemingly banal conversations about dust, plastic, furniture, and horse-racing.
Per Parks's script, the full scene is seamlessly repeated twice, after which the actors, Felicia Benefield and David Westley Skillman, silently mime the scene's actions while an audio recording of the couple's impressions of their wedding day plays in the background. The effect is hypnotic, and Benefield and Skillman, who also play the Sister/Wife and Soldier characters in Accents, pull it off with impressive stamina.
Both Accents and Dust Commander set the proverbial stage for local writer Eugenia Chan's 40-minute, one-woman play Bone to Pick, AvantGardeARAMA's second war-themed piece, which Cutting Ball commissioned for its co-founder Paige Rogers to perform for this showcase. Bone to Pick is based on the Greek myth of Ariadne, the Cretan princess who fell for the Athenian prince Theseus, who came to Crete to destroy Ariadne's half-brother, the Athenian-killing half-man half-bull known as the Minotaur. She betrays the Minotaur by leading Theseus through the labyrinth in which the monster is kept, and upon completing his mission Theseus abandons Ariadne on a lonely island.
In Chan's version, Ariadne becomes Ria, a waitress stranded in a military base diner who brings the soldier Theo into the labyrinth through a walk-in freezer. Chan's well-paced, metaphor-driven script teems with rich moments that turn relatable everyday conversations and clichés into alternatingly funny and chilling chants of vulnerability during wartime. Rogers expertly channels the Ria persona, and displays an instinct for the way that Chan delivers desperate sensuality through the metaphors of food, weapons, and butchery. Like most actors who can handle extended solo performances, Rogers envelops the audience in an atmosphere, tuning them in via an almost lucid state of trance.
Melrose and his actors and crew have accomplished an impressive mission on Taylor Street. By taking the stereotypical self-indulgence and pretension out of avant-garde theatre, AvantGardeARAMA! does a true service to the form.
AvantGardeARAMA! runs through August 16, 2008 at EXIT on Taylor through August 16th. For tickets and information visit cuttingball.com or call 800-838-3006.