[Back on 17 June, I posted another “Short Takes,” the ROT shorthand for a collection of brief articles usually too short to post on their own. That collection, subtitled “Some Art Shows,” consisted of six small reports on art exhibits that didn’t merit extensive discussion. Now I’m doing the same thing with some reports on four shows, three from 1985 and one from 2006 (all before I started Rick On Theater in 2009) that also didn’t get longer write-ups. They’re all also, in their own ways, unusual performances.
[The last report below, Man of the Heart, was originally a section of a longer one on theater and art that I sent out to friends out of town before I launched ROT. (Long-time ROTters will know that that was the seed of this blog: reports I sent to those out-of-town friends.) The three 1985 performances were in-house reports I made for my boss in an abortive theater venture back then. I briefly worked with a former teacher who was planning to start a theater. While the founder and artistic director was exploring the possibilities, she often asked me to scout out performances, performers, scripts, and writers as potential future production material and creators.]
THEATER OF PANIC
18 February 1985
Theater of Panic (the title is adapted from Spanish playwright Fernando Arrabal) with Geoff Hoyle and Keith Terry is billed as “a contemporary vaudeville featuring bits, skits, gags, falls, trips, disasters. miscalculations. letdowns, vulgar slapstick and intellectual comedy.” (Both performers are alumni of the San Francisco-based Pickle Family Circus.) Presented by the Dance Theater Workshop’s Economy Tires Theater at the Bessie Schönberg Theater, 219 W. 19th Street in Chelsea, the performance was “especially commissioned . . . by Dance Theater Workshop, Inc.” I saw it at the 8 o’clock show on the evening of Sunday, 17 February . (The show, which runs Friday through Sunday, opened on 15 February and closes on 3 March.)
It’s a two-man routine, or series of routines, that’s reminiscent of Bill Irwin’s The Regard of Flight in approach and attitude, if not in material (though there is some similarity) or appeal. [The Regard of Flight first appeared at the American Place Theatre in Mid-Manhattan in 1982 and was televised by PBS for Great Performances in 1983.] Most of the pieces are essentially solo turns by one or the other of the performers, each with his own specialties, though there are a few in which both men perform.
The program doesn’t identify the individual pieces (which may change from performance to performance—I’m not sure). Here’s a very simplified description of what I saw:
The first piece seemed to be an abstract mime/dance routine, performed by Hoyle with off-stage accompaniment by Terry on home-made percussion instruments (cookie sheets and the like). The audience broke out into intermittent peals of laughter, but I had no idea what was happening, or why it was funny. I got the impression that the audience was full of people familiar with the duo’s work. (This was the third performance, and the first Sunday show—that is, the first 8 p.m. show; Friday and Saturday shows are at 11 p.m.)
After this piece, and between all the rest of the bits, Terry did one of his specialties: Body Music. For the uninitiated, that’s the use of the body as a percussion instrument, with pops, slaps, taps, clicks, and slides, which Terry sometimes accompanies with vocal “music” as well. The first of these bits was mildly amusing to me, but subsequent repetitions, though they were all different, did not excite me. The audience seemed to enjoy it, and met each one with anticipatory laughter when Terry stepped center stage with the sheepish look that signaled he was about to do this bit. Except for the manual dexterity it demonstrates, I don’t really see the talent in this.
The second bit was a “lecture/demonstration” of the relation of percussion and movement that was primarily a series of slapstick pratfalls which were supposed to be punctuated by Terry on drums, but for which he missed all the cues (on purpose—Terry’s persona is dim-witted.)
One of the cleverest bits, but which, like most of them, went on too long, was a strange routine in which the two men, dressed in overcoats a size or two too large, stood as if on a subway. While Terry read his paper, Hoyle struggled with a hand which came out of his overcoat, first through the front, then through the neck, and attacked him. Eventually it was joined by its mate and strangled Hoyle. Macabre, but funny.
After Terry’s usual Body Music interlude, he returned with two of those “canned cow” toys—the kind that “moo” when they’re moved. He did a very funny rendition of “Proud Mary” with the cans as accompaniment.
There followed a bit that started with Hoyle doing both Pantalone and Arlecchino in Commedia dell’Arte masks in Italian. Though fairly standard characterizations, this was mildly amusing until it kept going on, with the Italian dialogue. This bit was combined with a long piece in which first Hoyle, then both the men, performed in a jester’s belled cap and “nose and glasses” (Groucho) mask, and with a series of puppets which consisted of a stick with a head mounted on it which was made to look exactly like the two men in their masks. This piece had no dialogue, and very soon became uninteresting and repetitious.
Terry’s next bit was an amusing piece in which he made “music” with a collection of children’s toys.
Hoyle’s final solo piece was a true clown performance, which was marred again by its length. It centered on his attempt to play a trombone: at first he can’t assemble it, then he can’t remember the music, then he can’t hold the music and play, then he assembles a music stand, but extends it nearly to the ceiling, then he tries balancing on a chair on top of the prop trunk to reach it. Toward the end, Terry hands him a violin, which Hoyle proceeds to play in a poor man’s Victor Borge routine (not Jack Benny).
The last bit was a routine with wooden batons. It combined syncopated “martial art-like” exercises, rhythmic rapping, and a little balancing and acrobatics. I found it mildly interesting.
Though the New York Times made the obvious comparison to Bill Irwin, Theater of Panic isn’t anywhere near as funny, clever, or antic as Irwin’s work, and Hoyle and Terry don’t measure up in the talent department either. There were a few clever bits (the “hand” routine, for instance), but all of them went on far too long. The evening was an hour and a half, but should have been an hour at most.
I also acknowledge that the audience seemed to enjoy the evening, and gave the men two extra curtain calls (they came out for a third while everyone was putting on their coats, which got a final laugh). I may just not be the right audience for this material—clowns are not generally my favorite humor. Theater of Panic was also apparently taped for the Dance Collection of the Library and Museum of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center; it may be available for viewing there if anyone’s curious.
Mel Gussow of the Times characterized Hoyle and Terry as “polar icecap opposites and therein lies the key to their New Vaudeville comedy.” The Timesman continued: “Mr. Hoyle, who is English, would not be out of character in the Monte Python company. He is a fervidly expressive clown, always in a rush or in a dither—or a rushing dither—while Mr. Terry, a bearded American, is his calm, deadpan straight man and musical accompanist.” Gussow found that the pair “are an amusing team, though in Mr. Hoyle's case there is a tendency to attenuate the circumstances.” Like me, the reviewer felt, ”Careful pruning would enliven the evening.”
* * * *
27 February 1985
On Saturday night, 23 February , I went down to the East Village to catch Danitra Vance and the Mell-0 White Boys at the La MaMa Cabaret. Vance is a black, female, solo artist who performs in a cabaret atmosphere. She works with a “back-up group” called the Mell-O White Boys who accompany her when she sings. (One of the “Boys” was sick and replaced by a Mell-O White Girl the night I saw them.) The New York Times described her as “feminist,” but that label is misleading in the sense that her material isn’t aggressively political or hostilely anti-male. She does deal with the role of women in our world with humor and biting satire, but her tongue is planted so firmly in her cheek that it’s a kind of feminism without tears. I laughed continuously throughout the entire hour-and-a-half, despite the late hour (11 p.m. starting time); excruciatingly uncomfortable, hard, wooden chairs; and the crowded, small, close cabaret in the basement of La MaMa.
The audience for the performance was a very mixed bag. There were as many blacks as whites, the ages were decidedly mixed, ranging from 20’s to 40’s and 50’s, and, though there was a majority of women, there were also a large number of men, mostly accompanied by women. (I think I was the only single person there.) Many came with wine or beer, expecting small tables and a night-club set up. Instead, there were only small, wooden chairs set up in a proscenium arrangement with a center aisle. The cabaret had a bar in the rear of the room that sold coffee and tea. The audience didn’t seem to mind the long wait upstairs in the small lobby or the fact that the house was opened late and the show was delayed for some reason. Everyone was very convivial and social, jockeying for seats, and opening drinks.
The stage had a piano, a microphone, and several pieces of costume draped about, ready for quick changes of character. As it turns out, some of Vance’s changes also take place off stage. In the hour-and-a-half, she did 10 character turns, all of which are unique and startling. Her characters aren’t recognizable types, but strange exaggerations created from her own imagination, touching on reality only in the sense that they are those kinds of situations we would like to see (remember the old Mad Magazine bit, “Ads We’d Like to See”?)
Among her most outrageous characters are a Lesbian Recruiter; Harriet Hetero, a feminist stripper; and Robin Reluctant, a female-to-male transsexual. Some of Vance’s more off-the-wall ideas: her entrance bit with a tommy gun swaddled in a blanket like a baby; a character who is a “Mydol junkie”; an “avant-garde rap artist” who will be performing her new rap opera, “Feinstein on the Beach” at SLAM—Some Little Academy of Music. Harriet requests that we call her “ma’am—in honor of my mammary glands”; Robin introduces his back-up group as the TIT’s—Transsexuals In Training.
Vance has a fondness for using lyrics to popular songs in her dialogue, and the results are often hilarious. She also parodies the songs themselves in some of her routines (the Lesbian Recruiter sings “My Girl” and Robin uses “I Am a Man” as his routine). She likes to play with her audience, and she knows how to get them to respond and play along. This isn’t, however, an “audience-participation” show. She doesn’t restrict herself to the stage, moving up and down the center aisle, and doing the Lesbian recruiter turn from the bar in the rear (this wasn’t particularly easy to see, however).
Vance, who calls herself “Everywoman—and some men,” is a clever, funny, imaginative, and creative performer. (Comparisons with Whoopi Goldberg seem to be based on two similarities: they’re both black and female. From what I know of Goldberg, the similarity ends there.) According to La MaMa, she will be performing her current show weekend evenings (11 p.m.) “indefinitely.” She is usually sold out a week in advance. Go with a friend or two, bring a bottle of wine—and a cushion. And keep an eye on her!
In the Village Voice, Alisa Solomon wrote, “Danitra Vance creates magic of a sharper sort. [Solomon was comparing Danitra Vance and the Mell-O White Boys with a Sam Shepard play which shared the Voice reviewer’s column.] Her comedy stabs while it entertains, actually causing a physical catch in your laughter as she undercuts every pose she takes.” Solomon characterized the performer as “[b]eginning with and then undermining stereotypes” and adding that “Vance creates an unsettling tension among stereotypes, reality, and the conditions that create stereotypes.” She reported that Vance “doesn’t stop to let zingers sink in; she hits and runs.”
Stephen Holden described Vance and her back-up group as offering “incisive, cheerfully liberating musical comedy that knowingly turns sexual and racial stereotypes inside out.” In an earlier column, Holden reported that Vance’s “comedy is as endearing as it is incisive.” The review-writer characterized the comedian as a “classically trained actress who is equally cognizant of Shakespeare and Motown” and “takes special delight in overlaying highbrow and pop cultural references in amusingly drastic combinations.” Holden explained, “The theme of Miss Vance’s show, repeated in many variations, is the comic thrill and liberating insights of every sort of role reversal.” He cautioned: “Miss Vance will inevitably be compared to Whoopi Goldberg, but she’s no carbon copy, and the town is big enough for two of them.”
[Danitra Vance did a brief stint as a regular member of the cast of Saturday Night Live from 1985-86, the sketch-comedy show’s 11th season. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1990 and after a mastectomy and a brief remission, the cancer returned in 1993 and Vance died of the disease in 1994 at the age of 40.]
* * * *
MARY ELLEN BERNARD
30 March 1985
You must see Mary Ellen Bernard sing. I caught her on 27 March  at Panache, the cabaret at the Magic Pan (1409 Avenue of the Americas, between 57th and 58th Streets). On the surface, her act is a standard cabaret solo turn, but her material and style are fresh and unusual. I can’t really describe what she does because it falls flat in words, but I can give you a taste. Most of her material is either original (by friends of husband Paul Guzzone, who’s her musical director) or seldom-performed material by the likes of Noel Coward and Stephen Sondheim. Furthermore, what she does with the songs makes even the familiar numbers new and fresh.
Emmy draws heavily on her background and experience as an actress. At the risk of sounding over-intellectual, she imbues her performance with abhinaya, the quality of Indian performance that indicates that the artist is experiencing and communicating something special through her technique. An example: One of her numbers is an operatic version of a musical-comedy version of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Emmy plays all the roles, switching costume pieces for each character. Not only is the idea wonderfully absurd, but the presentation had the entire house on the floor.
I know Emmy slightly through some friends with whose acting company she used to perform before she decided to turn her energies to preparing a cabaret singing act. She was a good character actress, but she’s special in her new guise. There’s something in her of the qualities of Edith Piaf and Lotte Lenya, though they haven’t fully matured yet. I saw her act for the first time this week, though she’s been performing around the cabaret showcase circuit for about a year now. My estimation is that as soon as she gets either a major review or the kind of exposure TV can provide, she’ll take off.
She has no current plans for her next appearance, but she won’t be idle too long. She’s promised to send me two flyers for her next performance.
* * * *
MAN OF THE HEART
9 May 2006
I got an e-mail from an acquaintance—Suman Mukherjee—informing me that he was here in New York City with his latest directing project, Man of the Heart: The Life & Times of Lalon Phokir, a one-performer, multi-media piece about the life and philosophy of a 19th-century Bengali sage. (‘Phokir’ is an alternate spelling for what we commonly call ‘Fakir,’ a Sufi Muslim ascetic who’s taken a vow of poverty and religious devotion, renouncing all connection to the secular world.) The piece, written and performed by Sudipto Chatterjee from research he conducted, with Suman’s assistance, over some 15 years (including a recent trip to Bangladesh, where Lalon died in 1890 at about 116—and no, that’s not a typo!), reminded me very generally of Peter Brook’s Tierno Bokar, which I saw in 2005. [My report about this play was posted on 28 August 2011].
It’s not that the pieces were alike in terms of production, or even theme, but both Man and Tierno Bokar are essentially single-performer pieces (Tierno Bokar had other actors and characters, but the focus was almost exclusively on the title character) and they’re both about religious figures, sages and teachers, who are generally unknown in the West, both of whom have ties to Sufi Islam, and both of whom lived in regions under the rule of European colonial powers (Lalon in the India of the British Raj and Bokar in French Africa). Tierno Bokar, however, is about that colonialism and the devastation of intolerance (in this case, Muslim-on-Muslim intolerance) and Man is an exploration of the profundity of Lalon’s true philosophy, as opposed to the myths and legends that grew up around him and his legacy after his death. Granted, the similarities are superficial—but nevertheless, unmistakable.
Though Tierno Bokar included some of Bokar’s teachings, most of the text of that play—and it was more of a conventional “play,” despite Brook’s proclivities, than is Man—was ordinary prose (performed entirely in English) adapted by Marie-Hélène Estienne from Amadou Hampaté Ba’s biography of Bokar (Tierno Bokar, le sage de Bandiagara, 1957; translated into English as A Spirit of Tolerance: The Inspiring Life of Tierno Bokar). Man of the Heart’s text—in English and Bengali (with supertitles)—is a combination of research (there is very little record of Lalon and even less that is reliable) and the songs he composed to spread his philosophy, which preached tolerance and an abhorrence for religious conflict.
Brook’s physical production was simple, but it was a stage set; Suman designed a non-representative playing area—essentially a long white bolt of cloth and a stand-alone doorway, various parts of which also served as the screen—very interestingly used in several different ways—for the projections which were an integral part of the show at the little Off-Off-Broadway Kraine Theatre across from La MaMa in the East Village, where the show ran from 27 April until 7 May . (In this one, small aspect, Suman’s staging brings to mind the use of projections by Ariane Mnouchkine in Le Dernier Caravansérail at last summer’s Lincoln Center Festival, projected, like Suman’s, on different parts of the set and surrounding drapes—and, in several instances in Man, onto the back of Lalon’s robe which Chatterjee held spread out. Mnouchkine’s projections, though, were all text, while Suman’s are text, occasionally title slides like Brecht might have used; charts, such as an abbreviated family tree; drawings; photos; and film/video—both original and “borrowed.”)
Another difference between Brook’s effort and Suman and Mr. Chatterjee’s: Tierno Bokar was only curious for a while, then became entirely unengaging to me [as you can see from my report] but Man, though less smooth and polished (not necessarily a fault) than Tierno Bokar, was almost always interesting. I attribute this to the content more than anything else: Brook was examining intolerance—certainly a worthy and potentially dramatic subject—but his vehicle was an extremely narrow point, whether a particular Muslim prayer should be said 11 times or 12, that is totally irrelevant and incomprehensible to us here in the West. It was like Swift’s Little-Endians and Big-Endians. But Man is an attempt to examine Lalon’s lessons about life and the spirit—a subject that has more resonance for all of us, regardless of our faiths (or lack of it).
Some of Lalon’s songs are hard to interpret (part of his legend, because he had to disguise his intent in codes and misdirection to avoid persecution by both Muslims and Hindus), and the passages that are essentially lectures by Chatterjee were hard to stick with because they are uncharacteristically untheatrical, but enough of what Lalon and Man are examining is worth hearing to make the whole endeavor worthy. While I didn’t walk out of Tierno Bokar wanting to know any more about Bokar, I left Man curious to learn more about Lalon. That may have been in the nature of the two subjects, or it may have been because of the two performances.
[There were no reviews of the New York production that I could find at the time, but Suman and Chatterjee have staged the play many times around the world and I’ve collected several notices of other productions. First, there’s a review of that Kraine Theatre mounting by Prachi Deshpande, who teaches history at the University of California, Berkeley, on a website called parabaas.com in 2007. In it, Deshpande stated at the outset, “The writer-performer Sudipto Chatterjee and the director of the performance Suman Mukherjee deserve tremendous praise for their efforts to showcase the oeuvre and philosophy of this remarkable poet and thinker.” He declared, “The performance succeeded above all in conveying the sheer joyousness and irreverence that pervades so much of devotional, mystic poetry across the subcontinent in so many of its languages.” He praised Chatterjee’s performance, “which combines an intensely physical and energetic command of the stage with a clear monologue and rendition of some of Lalon’s most well known songs.” The history prof, who speaks Bengali, added, “The live singing, it seemed to me, enabled Chatterjee to ‘become’ Lalon Phokir.” Deshpande found the “multi-media format . . . rich and informative” as an effective way to place Lalon into the context of Indian and Bengali history, though he felt that Chatterjee’s lectures were presented “a little heavy handedly at times.” The history teacher also appreciated the play’s “success in conveying complex philosophical concepts through an extremely sparse stage set up” of a few props and stage decorations. “Mukherjee's direction makes excellent use of these props to convey these abstract ideas,” said Deshpande. He concluded:
In all, this was an ambitious effort to showcase one of Bengal's most well known mystic poet saints; the broader questions it raises is testimony to its success in presenting on stage the rich philosophy and music of Lalon Phokir.
In the Times of India, Sreemita Bhattacharya wrote in January 2017 that Man of the Heart “narrates the story of 19th century Bengali Sufi saint and song-maker Lalon Shah Fakir . . . in a way that the moner manush [one of Lalon’s most famous songs of love and separation] tugs at your heartstrings.” Bhattacharya also declared, “Simplicity is not easy to portray, especially on stage where every action is as deliberate as it is spontaneous,” adding, “Add multimedia elements to such a production and it becomes harder to retain and balance out the essence of the play.” All together, the reviewer promised that “the play takes you on a haunting musical journey.” “The elegance of simplicity in Lalon’s life of abstinence are highlighted in the costumes, stage design and props which accommodate only the necessary,” reported Bhattacharya. Dismissing a few flaws, she concluded, “Above and beyond, the drama progresses on a soothing note as moner manush once again manages to find his place close to your mind and heart.”]
[Suman Mukherjee—or Suman Mukhopadhyay, as he also calls himself—is one of those acquaintances to whom I sent the theater reports before I started ROT. He’d been a student of Leonardo Shapiro here in New York City, hence his interest in what was happening theatrically here, and I reached out to him when I was doing research on Leo and was looking for information on a production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame he’d staged in Bengali In Kolkata in 1993. I didn’t know Suman, but I found an e-mail address for the company that presented the production and he responded and sent me a packet of wonderful material. We continued to correspond and then he e-mailed me that he was in New York with Man of the Heart. That was the first time we’d met in person.]