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Elisa Bongiovanni and Giada Parlanti, Aspettando Nil Elisa Bongiovanni and Giada Parlanti, Aspettando Nil
photo courtesy the artists
Elisa Bongiovanni and Giada Parlanti, Aspettando Nil Elisa Bongiovanni and Giada Parlanti, Aspettando Nil
photo courtesy the artists
MORE AND MORE, AND PERHAPS IN RESPONSE TO THE GLUT OF PERFORMANCE IN FRINGE FESTIVALS, A SMALLER, MORE FOCUSED AND, MOST IMPORTANTLY, CURATED KIND OF FESTIVAL OF INDEPENDENT WORK IS EMERGING. IN AUSTRALIA WE HAVE SYDNEY’S IMPERIAL PANDA AND TINY STADIUMS FESTIVALS, AS WELL AS MELBOURNE’S DANCE MASSIVE, WHICH IS, AS ITS NAME SUGGESTS, SLIGHTLY LARGER. THE FOREST FRINGE MICROFESTIVAL TOOK PLACE AT LONDON’S BATTERSEA ARTS CENTRE FOR THE FIRST TIME THIS YEAR, A TWO-NIGHT LINE-UP OF WORKS-IN-PROGRESS, ONE-ON-ONE PERFORMANCE PIECES AND SITE-SPECIFIC INSTALLATIONS.

In theory, if not always necessarily in practice, such festivals offer the audience a certain concentration of quality, as well as the reassurance that sometimes comes with a curatorial seal of approval. Everything has been programmed for a reason. Russian roulette, which navigating a fringe festival program sometimes feels like, it is not.

Presented by Collective:unconscious and Brooklyn’s East River Commedia at Manhattan’s Performance Space 122, the Undergroundzero Festival of Theater Artists, now in its fourth year, is very much a quality-controlled fringe festival, one of many that take place in New York City during the summer months as a prelude to the city’s official fringe festival in the autumn. Curated by East River Commedia’s Artistic Director, Paul Bargetto, this year’s three-week festival comprised some 20 works from the United States and abroad, including Australia, and impressively redressed the usual imbalance between quantity and quality.

It was also impressive in its scope. Curation is often an act of creation, with the festival programmer a kind of auteur, stamping their imprint on their festival and indulging their own formal and thematic concerns. Bargetto is an exception to this rule: his festival revealed little about what sort of work he favours or what sort of stories and themes float his boat. With a line-up of performance styles as varied and distinctive as any fringe festival’s, only with several hundred fewer works with which to achieve such variety, his festival saw high brush up against low, opera against burlesque, contemporary dance against musical comedy and adaptation against improvisation.

Of this last dichotomy, Dangerous Ground Productions’ From Dawn till Night (The Earth is Uninhabitable like the Moon) and Anna Brenner’s Are We Here Yet? served as representative examples. Using live video and an open-plan set to collapse time and space (not a particularly original approach, but nonetheless visually arresting), the former was a multimedia adaptation of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s In a Year of Thirteen Moons, while the latter was based on a series of improvisations that followed the four-strong cast’s observation of people in Riverside Park on the Upper West Side. Both productions comprised a series of one-on-one interactions unfolding in abstract space: in the former, the transvestite and the straight man he loved, his distant mother, his sympathetic best friend; in the latter, the old man and the social worker, the political candidate and the virile younger man, the book club president and the washed-up author. But the ends sought by each production could not have been more different.

While Brenner aimed to explore the interconnectedness of people—Are We Here Yet? was essentially a four-hander in the vein of Patrick Marber’s Closer or Jane Bodie’s Fourplay, only with a theoretical bent explicitly stated in the text that occasionally took precedence over character or story—From Dawn till Night’s Romanian-born director-designer Doris Mirescu was interested in the utter isolation of individuals, even, indeed especially, from themselves.

Isolation and alienation, of course, were the great themes of Andy Warhol, who once famously claimed, among many other things, that he never felt the need to be close to anybody after he purchased his first television set. Like so many of his public statements, this one was at once caustic, ironic, truthful and sad: humorous because shameless, disconcerting because familiar. Combining elements of Warhol’s biography, philosophy and aphoristic wit, Theater Bielefeld’s Forever Art attempted to capture these contradictions, which so characterised the artist and his work. To the extent that the production—not a one-man show, but close—was successful, it was due to John Wesley Zielmann.

The actor channelled Warhol as though he were a cadaverous mad scientist poised between explosion and implosion and liable to go one way or the other at any given moment. The uncanny physical resemblance of Zielmann to Warhol was compromised a little by his voice—the production was in German with shoddily typed surtitles that could have done with a proof-reader—but the actor’s evocation of the artist’s constituent strangeness and sadness was stunning. In the production’s most memorable and terrible scene, Zielmann engaged in a contemporary dance number that saw him convulsively slamming his fists against his chest and his body against the floor, almost as though he were performing an exorcism on himself.

A much lighter, if occasionally foul-mouthed kind of musical number was offered by Blue Dress Reduction, easily the funniest and most immediately charming production at the festival. Written and performed by Eliza Bent, Jasmin Hoo and Elizabeth Stevenson, the low-budget musical comedy was the sort of piece you tend to find by accident at fringe festivals or in the smaller, less well-attended venues of a comedy festival, another example of how curation can often help to separate wheat and chaff for an audience. Blue Dress Reduction told the story of the three writers’ real-life visit to England to be bridesmaids at their best friend’s wedding, with culture shock and the usual unplanned mishaps of travel helping to turn the event into an unmitigated disaster.

In addition to the musical numbers, with their delightful, slightly unpolished air, the piece was notable for its unscripted sequences, where the house lights came up a little and the three women spoke candidly to each other about the trip, and its parodic characterisation of those who occupy the other side of the pond. Eliza Bent, whose She of the Voice premiered at last year’s festival, was particularly impressive as the hoity-toity mother-of-the-groom, and one senses that it was she who was the creative force behind the project. In any case, she is one to watch, with all the makings of a great comedienne.

The festival’s most affecting work also told the story of three friends, though only one of them was ever onstage, and instead of singing musical numbers he chanted for his football team: Ireland, during the November 2009 World Cup qualifying match that saw Frenchmen Thierry Henry’s hand make sure the paddies wouldn’t be going to South Africa in 2010. Named for an Irish number that is traditionally sung at the end of a gathering of friends, Dermot Bolger’s The Parting Glass, produced by Dublin’s Axis Ballymun in association with New York’s terraNOVA Collective, was a fascinating monologue about emigration and the meaning of home, as well as family, loss and friendship. A sequel to Bolger’s 1990 play, In High Germany, which saw the three aforementioned friends move away from Ireland, The Parting Glass dramatised the decision of one of them—played brilliantly by Ray Yeates, with genuine warmth and feeling—to return.

The results were often funny, often moving, and also very often political. The piece was highly critical of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger years, insisting that far fewer benefited from the country’s economic boom than perhaps could or should have, and was similarly unimpressed by the post-boom period, to which Yeates’ central character returns. But its polemic was held close to its chest, wherein beat a lot of heart. And it was this heart, more than any economic or political critique, that made the piece the intense experience that it ultimately was.

But perhaps the festival’s most striking work was Fabiana Iacozilli’s Aspettando Nil, a feminist take on Waiting for Godot that actually felt more like a cross between The Glass Menagerie and Abbott and Costello. Elisa Bongiovanni and Giada Parlanti played chain-smoking mother and daughter, respectively, preparing themselves, like Tennessee Williams’ Amanda and Laura Wingfield, for a gentleman caller to arrive—which he would do, mother told daughter, when the two of them were “ready.” And so they readied themselves for the man—for any man, really—excitedly dressing and putting on make-up, prettifying themselves in a series of slapstick sequences and talking about what sort of responsibilities the daughter would have towards her new beau.

Like The Parting Glass, Aspettando Nil was at once both humorous and moving, as well as fiercely political. Unlike The Parting Glass, it was also formally inventive, using Waiting for Godot as a launch pad for its own satirical exploration of gender roles, insisting, as its title suggests, that a woman who waits for a man is waiting for nil, for nothing. The meaning of Beckett’s play, of course, is somewhat more ambiguous, open to interpretation where Aspettando Nil is rather explicit. But one can certainly understand why Iacozilli thought it appropriate to her ends. After all, Beckett’s is the play in which, famously, nil happens twice.


Collective:Unconscious & East River Commedia, Undergroundzero Festival of Theater Artists, PS122, New York, July 7-26; www.ps122.org/performances/undergroundzero_festival.html

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 12

© Matthew Clayfield; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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