It’s a self-flagellating, self-immolating practice these days to decry the absurdity of the world we live in. What a zany place! I had a better intro, but it took up too much space. Wasn’t worth it. Got rid of it. Dreamt of sex instead. And all I could take. And the atom bomb. Wahddya want, Captain Mandrake?
No, I went and saw the Come to Dada/Dali’s Liquid Ladies doubleheader at Bedlam Theatre.
Come To Dada is a group work directed by Bedlam Co-Artistic Director John Francis Beuche. The cast and crew is drawn from a wide group of regular Bedlam contributors and the bulk of the text used comes from dreams contributors sent in to the Bedlam blog. Much of this text is used directly in the final production, spoken by the large group of performers, layering the texts on to eachother so little snippets come out; “My fingernails are being torn off”, “I am lost in a South Korean airport”, “Sarah Palin wears loser shoes!” or in extended riffs. A piano, violin and trumpet accompany the cast and set the often somber mood, broken by manic spurts of list-making, getting up close to the audience and a song whose lyrics are “Knowledge Knowledge Knowledge Boom Boom Boom!” The only named character in the work is one “Dick Dada” who, in a fedora and often lit by a single bulb, offers up monologues on absurdity and hope as though she’s running an underground jazz club.
All this amounts a simulacra of the chaos of our dreams and an attempt to re-capture or engage the anti-establishment anarchy of the original Dada actions. But Come to Dada pointedly refuses to mean anything (at one point a plea goes up “Explain something! Mean something!”) and as such it refuses to establish what it rebelling against. The original Dada activists had the First World War that quite literally rent the fabric of Western Civilization. We now exist in a far more inchoate world that to be sure, is both dark and perilous and full of light. This intransigence against definition stops the cast from actually delving into the “hope and despair” they posit at the beginning of the show and keeps them stuck in a theatre exercise. Some individual moments of the production, such as a dance of desire and rejection between George McConnell and choreographer Heather Wilson speak volumes, but by simply reciting back our dreams to us, Come to Dada reflects the surface of our chaos back without articulating questions to enter it. With the intelligence, passion and capacity of this crew, Come to Dada could have been so much more.
Fortunately, Dali’s Liquid Ladies is so much more, mostly by attempting to deal with so much less. Instead of attempting to negotiate art history, a world war and humanity dreaming, playwright Savannah Reich and director Samantha Johns find a single absurd premise and exploit it to it’s fullest. The play centers around the artist Salvador Dali’s entry into the 1939 New York World’s Fair, “Dream of Venus”, a pavilion where topless women dressed as mermaids swam through giant fish tanks. “If your wife asks, just tell her it’s ART!” one of the sideshow mermaids barks to the audience early on. But underneath this technicolor sexy veneer there is ominous disconnect, exploitation, lust revenge and fear. The show opens with the three mermaids deciding that Dali must die, and everything spins away from there.
Reich and Johns have negotiated the absurd before, their musical You’re No Fun from 2008 dealt in a similar satiric vain, lampooning self important theatre artists and their disconnect from reality. Dali’s Liquid Ladies steps up that distance but invests the audience even more because of the madcap hilarity of the opening scenes. The mermaids (Reich, Kait Sergenian and Katie Melby) are by turn enthralled with the mystery of the artist, terrified at his strangeness, dead sexy, lost and uproarious. By the time they’re done, you love them and when the absurdity stops for a split second of honest darkness, it comes like a punch in the gut . They do all this to a live soundtrack by “Hot” Tony Biele, a popping mix of electronics, xylophone and bass strings that wraps the whole frenetic spectacle in an otherworldy gauze. The introduction of a “Lost Nazi” (Mark Rehani) and his subsequent fall subtly illuminate the folly social super-structures. As Dali himself, John Mac Cole’s non-specific mad genius voice is as gaudy as his outsized moustache, and the pendulum of grandeur and neuroses in his twitching body give the show not a villain, but our id-driven anti-hero.
There are tits, cock, ass, and tears, none of them cheap or tawdry. The cumulative effect is ecstatic and wrenching, a phantasmagoria of desire distilled to unnerving honesty. As the Liquid Ladies ask, “What do you dream of when no-body’s looking?”
April 17-May 2
Thursdays through Saturdays 8pm, Sundays 7pm
Tickets $15, no one turned away