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Martha Clarke's new dance-theater piece is heavy on mood, but light on substance. logo
Daria Deflorian and Sophie Bortolussi
in Kaos
(© Joan Marcus)
Leaving Martha Clarke's new theater piece Kaos at New York Theatre Workshop, I was softly singing a chorus of something to myself. The song was Peggy Lee's disillusionment lament, "Is That All There Is?" But why had it come to mind and tongue? I'd seen Clarke's pieces over the years, so knew her attraction to the visual arts for ideas and her penchant for creating mood. Yet, I was caught off-guard by how slim the rewards are this time from someone whose output is usually highly rewarding. While the mood Clarke wants is there, the sense of something lacking was so acute I had to convince myself that while staring at the stage with concentration, I hadn't had a blackout.

In many of her previous works, Clarke has used paintings -- Toulouse-Lautrec, Hieronymous Bosch, Egon Schiele, and Gustav Klimt -- for inspiration. Instead, this piece is drawn from the 1984 film Kaos that Italian filmmakers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani adapted from a group of Luigi Pirandello stories. The title refers to the Sicilian town where Pirandello was born and therefore doesn't necessarily suggest a chaotic state of being. Although, there's some of that, too.

In Clarke's transfer of the movie -- which I haven't seen (but I know the Tavianis' strength is tapping profound emotion) -- she's focused on four of the film's four tales, with a particular empahsis on two of them. In one, a young woman, whose husband has a bout of madness when the moon is full, is attracted to another young man. In the other, the townspeople have a problem with an undertaker in relation to their not being able to bury their dead.

Clarke precedes these sequences with a prologue involving a group of people immigrating to America. The implication seems to be that they may be leaving their homeland behind but they're bringing their provocative stories with them. Not a bad observation, but not one to stir viewers' deeper emotions, either. If Clarke gets around to conveying much more, I missed it.

Luckily, Clarke succeeds in getting the atmosphere so right you could cut it with a knife. It's largely realized in Scott Pask's set, which features the kind of time-worn exterior walls and unprepossessing doors common to Italian villages. Christopher Akerlind's lighting is also invaluable, plunging the stage into tenebrous dark and suddenly aiming tired yellow slashes across it. Donna Zakowska dresses the 14-member cast -- which features both established performers include George de la Pena and Rocco Sisto and those making their Manhattan bows -- in clothes that suggest characters whose entire wardrobes could be hung on three or four hooks and folded into one or two drawers. But a lulling mood doesn't guarantee a finished production.

Most importantly, I was hoping to see more choreography than I did. Clarke has always moved dancers around with idiosyncratic verve, and does so here, but only sparingly. Suddenly, women arrive on stage spinning, their long hair whipping. Along with a segment of excited leg-stamping, the spins are the choreographic highlight. That's about it.

There's also lots of dialogue spoken in Italian and translated into English via supertitles thrown on the upstage right theater wall. The projections, by Tal Yarden, are mottled and dim, as if to say "You don't really have to read these to get the gist." Maybe you don't. And just maybe, there isn't a whole lot to get in Kaos.

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