By Rachel Straus
NEW YORK -- Big Dance Theater creates small-scale productions that are big on irony. In “Supernatural Wife” -- co-directed by Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar in BAM’S Harvey Theater (Nov. 29-Dec.-3) and viewed Dec. 2 -- Euripides’ tragic-comic play “Alkestis” is one part surreal drama, one part cartoon. It combines low-tech projections, non-virtuoso dancing, a cast numbering six and a score of Pontian folk, heavy metal and a sprinkling of industrial humming. That may all sound chaotic and silly, but in 65 minutes, “Supernatural Wife” manages to strike a balance between the sacred and the profane, between a witty pajama-party skit and a creative collage of sound, song, speech and dance.
While opera and dance companies are trending toward larger casts, more advanced technology and splashier media campaigns, this husband-wife team continues to celebrate scrappiness. The ninth production since Big Dance Theater’s founding 20 years ago, “Supernatural Wife” has toured Europe and the U.S. to critical success for the last ten months. In New York, BDT found the perfect space -- the Harvey Theater is decadent, disheveled and sports Grecian-style decorative motifs. Tailor-made.
“Supernatural” comes by way of poet and classics scholar Anne Carlson, who translated and modernized Euripides’ “Alkestis.” The text concerns King Admetos who sends his willing wife Alkestis to death in his stead. She comes back to life through the ministrations of Herakles. Alkestis (Tymberly Canale) dances like Isadora Duncan in the days when the mother of modern dance drank too much. When she returns from Hades, she resembles the bride of Frankenstein. King Admetos (Molly Hickok) is cast as a woman. The female actress dons an ink-black, waist-length wig, sports a Hitler mustache and delivers her lines as if she was deaf and we were dumb. Herakles (Pete Simpson) is a dead ringer for a rock star, thanks to his armbands, self-consciously deep voice and deafening drum solos.
The chorus, in contrast, is regal and appealing. Its three members take turns singing, dancing and commenting on the unfolding events with deadpan brio. Chris Giarmo sings like an angel, Aaron Mattocks, tall and bald, is a natural dancer who stamps the floor with his combat boots as if exorcising demons. Elizabeth DeMent speaks her lines about Alkestis’ off-stage death with wide-eyed terror, as if watching a slasher movie. While the play’s leads, Herakles and Admetos, are superficial fools, the chorus comes across as world-weary and wise. Occupy Wall Streeters would like this upending of the pecking order.
Parson and Lazar’s transposition of characters and events from a classical past into present-day kitsch is their specialty. Marcel Duchamp did it. So did Andy Warhol. Like these bad boys of art, Parsons and Lazar use “found” or throwaway objects to complete their story. Alkestis’ children appear on the screen of a 1970s television set. Speaking of their mother’s absence with lisping tenderness, they bring to mind the famed scene in “Poltergeist” when the youngest child is abducted by spirits and communicates with her mother through the TV.
Joanne Howard’s set resembles a techie’s basement in a Greek temple. A white, circular Grecian-style tiled floor is where the main characters mouth stilted lines of love and sorrow. On the outskirts of this sacred space stands the chorus, dressed in stagehand black, behaving like a group of real, if irony-ridden people. With monitors erected on industrial carts, a table-full of sound equipment, and an egg-shaped overhead screen showing footage of wailing crowds from Russia to the U.S., the set design of “Supernatural Wife” communicates a singular message: real life happens outside the magic circle of power, outside the Greek temple.
Few others besides BTD would attempt an adaptation of Euripides’ problematic play (it wasn’t received well in 438 BC). The original features numerous characters, begs more questions than it answers, and seems to be neither about sacrifice (Alkestis’ life for her husband’s) nor respect for the gods (they make crucial decisions while drunk). “Supernatural Wife” presents a world gone awry where major events, like dying and returning from the dead, unfold with little fanfare. What seems to matter in the end are not the protagonists, but the hurly burly of images and sounds (sound design by BDT's co-collaborator Jane Shaw). Parson and Lazar seem to be saying it’s up to us what to care about. Summing up the production’s profane attitude toward the sacred subject of the afterlife, chorister Giarmo leans into his old-fashioned microphone and says, “That’s how this went.”
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