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No Dice

Nature Theater of Oklahoma's deconstructive riff on traditional dinner theater is full of humor and charm.

Zachary Oberzan, Anne Gridley, and Robert M. Johanson
in No Dice
(© Peter Nigrini)
A sandwich -- ham & cheese or peanut butter & jelly -- is offered to audience members as they arrive for Nature Theater of Oklahoma's brilliant and humorous deconstructive riff on traditional dinner theater, No Dice, a nearly four-hour piece which is being presented by Soho Rep at 66 White Street, a non-theatrical location around the corner from the company's home.

The sandwiches are prepared and served to you by Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, the founders of Nature Theater of Oklahoma, as well as the creators and directors of No Dice. This personal touch helps foster the communal feel of the evening, breaking down the barrier between artists and audience. For the majority of this charming show, the overhead lights illuminate both the playing space and audience seating area, adding to this aesthetic.

The show is constructed from over 100 hours of taped phone conversations that Liska conducted with friends, family, and colleagues, and that Copper then edited into an aural text that is fed to the actors in real time via iPods. The performers adhere closely to the rhythms of the speakers -- including pauses and extraneous verbiage like "you know," "uh huh," and "well" -- while simultaneously exaggerating the emotions and intensity of the words.

The majority of the text is spoken by Anne Gridley, Robert M. Johanson, and Zachary Oberzan, with Kristin Worrall and Thomas Hummel hovering in the background, occasionally providing musical accompaniment and interacting with everyone else. Liska and Copper even make brief appearances. The spatial relationships of the performers -- how close or far away they are from one another -- helps to determine the level of intimacy or disconnectedness within the various conversations. Vocal inflections are also subtly used to shift the mood from funny to profound and back again. The actors employ ludicrous accents, repetitive movements, and overblown reactions to what is being said. It's extremely funny, and what makes it all work is the committed intensity of the excellent ensemble.

There is no plot. However, certain ideas and entire sequences are repeated throughout the performance. Topics range from the drudgeries of work, the consumption of food, the virility of Mel Gibson's Hamlet, and, of course, dinner theater. Describing a typical dinner theater experience, Gridley intones: "The costumes are goofy -- and very -- and it's very amateurish. But they try so hard you have to love them!" This also serves as an ironic, self-reflective comment on No Dice, which likewise utilizes goofy costumes and an acting style that, while not amateurish, does not conform to established theatrical conventions.

No Dice finds the poetics in everyday language, and sends up the way we, as a society, communicate or fail to do so. Johanson and Oberzan engage in an extended argument about the way one of them says "uh huh" that the other finds condescending. In another section, Johanson talks about wanting to tap into a "universal cosmic murmur" that connects us to something greater. "We don't hear ourselves," he says. "We just talk, and -- and things go unrecorded."

Admittedly, there are moments that are not as engaging, and an audience member's attention is prone to wander. But then something happens onstage to bring you right back in. It's also worth considering why the show needs to be as lengthy as it is. You could actually leave at intermission and feel as if you've gotten a complete theatrical experience. Indeed, the manic dance segment at the end of the first act is one of the show's highlights and could serve as a terrific ending point. However, if you stick around for Act Two, the very excessiveness of the piece has a cumulative effect that offers its own reward. No Dice is not for everyone, but if you're willing to give yourself over to the experience, it's immensely entertaining and one of the most original performances that I've had the pleasure to attend.


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