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Stage Directions - November 1999, Vol. 12, No. 9

Theater As Fearless Fun And Audacious Adventure

Alternative venues and formats that smash convention, logic and imagination

by Iris Dorbian

Where there's a will to perform, there is always a space in which to do it. Be it a park, a sidewalk or even a bathroom, the sheer roster of alternative venues and formats staggers the imagination. Following is a recent sampling of productions that have pushed the notion of unorthodox space into a new frontier of expression.

Breaking The Bank

Inside a vaulted Greenwich Village space that was formerly a bank, the 19-member De La Guarda troupe, soar through the air, burst through the ceiling and shatter the fourth wall in Villa Villa, a brilliant fusion of carnival, rave, rock concert and theater. Hailing from Buenos Aires, De La Guarda's daredevil Argentine aerialist/dancers landed in New York following a smash run in London. For nearly a year and a half, this versatile group who banded together in 1993 and don every hat -- from director to designer to builder, in addition to performer -- have cast a wondrous spell over New York City with their stunning sleight-of-hand and visual pyrotechnics. A caveat: Bring an umbrella (don't ask -- you'll be glad you did); also be prepared to move from place to place in accordance with the action. Have fun!

In The Parking Lot

Neither the roar of traffic, the intrusion of in-line skaters nor the gawks or heckles of passersby can halt the Expanded Arts theater company from what they've been doing on the Lower East Side since their 1995 start -- presenting free Shakespeare alfresco in a graffiti and noise-addled parking lot (yes, a parking lot) across from its tiny flagship theater. Thanks to the generosity of the Department of Transportation, Expanded Arts has been performing Shakespeare in their municipal parking lot with a renegade abandon and commitment that has not only dispelled some of the blight that still looms over this area -- one of New York's oldest neighborhoods—but has also brought a steady rush of kudos for this young company.

Last summer, they presented three of the Bard's classics -- The Comedy of Errors (this time set in the 1970s), Richard III and Measure for Measure, continuing to generate the buzz that shadows their every move. As if subverting the notion of environmental theater was not enough, Expanded Arts regularly churns out other productions that include a marathon of 9 plays in 94 days, as well as theater and digital video projects centered on both original opuses and classics.

Bi-Coastal Multimedia Extravaganza

A storefront, an art gallery, a former sweatshop and a speakeasy are just some of the unusual performance venues that have played host to past productions staged by New York City's Peculiar Works Project. An intrepid force in experimental theater, Peculiar Works has recently added multimedia forerunner to their credentials with their bi-coastal production of S.M. Dale's Privileged & Confidential -- "a timely expose of privacy and identity issues in the Information Age."

Venturing above and beyond the clarion call of theatrical duty (give or take a few glitches) with one creative team stationed in New York at The Gertrude Stein Repertory Theatre and the other at the Los Angeles Theatre Center (the site of last summer's Regional Alternative Theater conference where the show was the star attraction) Privileged & Confidential was an arresting blend of digital technology and live performance. Joining forces with other cutting edge companies such as MANOISECA and The Imprints as well as Affinity VideoNet, a videoconference service provider, Peculiar Works mounted the ambitious production with the aid of two video screens, one slated for the New York cast and another for the LA contingent. Both groups freely interacted with one another with a jaunty finesse that seemed to defy the distance between them. Make no mistake about it: Peculiar Works Project has jumped into the millennium.

A Midsummer Night's Dream Of Puppets

Last summer, The Shakespeare Project, a six-year-old company dedicated to bringing the magic of the Bard to underprivileged neighborhoods in New York City's five boroughs, presented A Midsummer Night's Dream amid the pageantry of puppetry and live outdoor performances. Staged in eight parks ranging from Harlem's St. Nicholas to Van Cortlandt in the Bronx, The Shakespeare Project's A Midsummer Night's Dream evoked the tone of the Brothers Grimm, transposing Shakespeare's lighthearted tale of mixed identities and romantic pairings into a realm of murder, mayhem and madness. The impish Puck is now a primal, dangerous fairy "straight out of Deliverance," while Titania and Oberon, the regal feuding king and queen of the fairy tribe, were old codgers feverishly consumed with dreams of revenge.

Directed by the project's founder, Scott Cargle, the production also boasted the superlatively inventive powers of Ralph Lee, who served as the puppetry director. Founder of the bacchanalian Village Halloween Parade and current artistic director of Mettawee River Company, Lee's roster of credits include New York Botanical Garden, The Bronx Zoo and St. John the Divine, where he is artist-in-residence. In it's sixth year, The Shakespeare Project has touched the lives of more than 13,000 New Yorkers, who have flocked to a slew of venues in over two dozen neighborhoods, to watch this exciting troupe perform.

It Kicks in a Disco

In an entirely different take on A Midsummer Night's Dream, what do you get when you set this same story against the decade of platform shoes, polyester and elongated sideburns, tossing in liberal doses of cross-dressing and interactive theater? The Donkey Show (subtitled A Midsummer Night's Disco), a quirky crowd-pleaser that uses the pulsating strains of '70s disco standards such as Don't Leave Me This Way and You Sexy Thing to tell Shakespeare's tale of romantic confusion and forest sorcery. Staged at El Flamingo, a nightclub in New York's Chelsea area, The Donkey Show seamlessly melds the decadence of that pre-AIDS era against a landscape of strobe lights, dazzingly imaginative choreography and wild kinetic energy. Presented by the Project 400 Theater Group, a six-year-old troupe dedicated to creating innovative new works, The Donkey Show initially kicked off its rambunctious heels at The Piano Store in 1998 before transferring for a sold-out six month run at another downtown venue, The Pyramid Club, earlier this year. The next project planned for these gifted visionaries who are cutting quite a swath for themselves in the alternative theater world is Lohengrin: The Hip-Hop Opera. SD

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