*****************With her short-cropped hair, and dressed in a black suit with red tie, Peggy Shaw doesn't look like your typical 65-year-old grandmother -- nor does she talk like one as she shares intimate details about her aging body in MUST the inside story, at the Public Theater. A collaboration with the London-based Clod Ensemble, and co-written by director Suzy Willson, the show features beautifully scripted passages that are simultaneously grounded in Shaw's autobiography and set loose into flights of fancy.
MUST incorporates a jazzy score by Paul Clark, performed live by a trio of musicians (Andrew Hall, John Paul Gandy, and Calina de la Mare). Most of the time, the music functions as a mood-setting backdrop to Shaw's words, but it erupts into the forefront in a terrific song entitled "Rattlin' Bones" (written by Clark and Shaw) that is the clear highlight of the production.
Shaw employs a keen, often self-deprecating wit as she describes her injuries, her experience of childbirth, her love of women, and more. Many of her remarks are delivered in a conspiratorial tone, as she draws the audience into her world. Accompanying her various monologues are projections of x-rays, human cells, and other microscopic medical imagery that shows the beauty and unknown territory that lies deep inside.
The metaphor of geology is repeatedly invoked by Shaw: "My back is slowly moving away from my hip-bone toward America," she intones. "My vertebrae curving toward the horizon, slipping underneath the sea of love, taking a million years to crawl up out of the water." And while Shaw is not the first to compare her body to a landscape, MUST nevertheless feels refreshingly original and evocatively poetic.
-- Dan Bacalzo
Directed by Jos Houben, the piece does begin portentously with a mellifluous voiceover (Gavin Robertson) in which the mythological tales related to the moon are described. Dawson cleverly and comically undercuts the over-the-top nature of these opening moments, physically illustrating some of the stories, such as how werewolves are affected by the lunar cycle and how the word "lunatic" is derived from the word "lunar."
Soon, Panorama -- which is meticulously synched to Shostakovich's 10th Symphony -- has moved onto President Kennedy's famous speech about his goals for the space program. (Dawson gives a spot on visual impersonation and lip-synchs to the recording perfectly.) Once the narrative reaches the moments that the rocket has been developed and its three-man crew is primed for the launch, Panorama truly -- pun fully intended -- soars.
Dawson brings Apollo 11 into sharp focus using his right forearm while fluttering his left to indicate the flames extending from the rocket just prior to liftoff. For the capsule that carries the men toward the moon, he creates a triangle with his thumbs and forefingers. When he makes a fist with one hand and twitches the fingers of his other underneath, the lunar-lander is brought to life vividly. So much so, that when there is difficulty landing on the moon's surface, theatergoers' hearts pound with worry, even though they know the landing will be a success.
The pair speaks in rapid rhymes and poetic prose, finishing one another's sentences as they tell personal stories and imagined scenarios. An early sequence has Connell describing his childhood fascination with superheroes, and his disappointment when his mother told him he'd never develop super powers. In many ways, the entire piece is about the search for heroes, along with the struggle not to become the villain.
At times, the show comes across as overly didactic, as the performers debate issues while taking on a range of personas to represent different sides of an argument. The duo are most successful when using humor to lighten the mood, particularly in a scene set in a Hallmark store in which Connell spins some highly original ways to express love that are far more interesting than any greeting card. Another highlight is a sequence in which Connell and Andrews play, respectively, a stand-up comedian and a rapper, which humorously but pointedly raises the issue of misogyny in these two professions.
The performers' musings on the existence of God (and subsequent search for him) are perhaps the most forced, as well as somewhat simplistic. Their explorations of racial dynamics, on the other hand, start out simply, but delve into some complex and uncomfortable territory -- particularly as they strive to understand how much race still matters in an era in which Barack Obama is President.
-- Dan Bacalzo
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