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Under the Radar: Roundup #1

Reports on Jerk, L'Effet de Serge, The Devil You Know, and Versus--In the Jungle of Cities.

Jonathan Capdevielle in Jerk
(© Alain Monot)
[Ed. Note: This is the first in a series of TM review roundups of shows in the 2010 Under the Radar Festival.]


Jerk, adapted from Dennis Cooper's 1993 novella of the same name, is a puppet theater piece, but I wouldn't advise bringing the kids. Presented at P.S. 122 as part of both Under the Radar and the venue's COIL Festival, the show is one of the most disturbing, yet riveting theatrical productions I've seen in years.

The solo performance stars Jonathan Capdevielle as David Brooks, one of the teenage accomplices to real-life serial killer Dean Corll, who in the mid-1970s raped, mutilated, and murdered more than 20 boys and young men in Houston, Texas. The play begins with David in prison, staging a puppet show for a class of psychology students which reenacts his involvement in the crimes. Capdevielle's David speaks in a halting, nervous-sounding voice which would be charming if the details he related weren't so grisly.

Once he takes on the voices of Dean, fellow accomplice Wayne, and the dead or dying boys in his puppet show, however, his entire demeanor changes. Director Gisele Vienne has the performer draw out certain moments -- including scenes of both sex and death -- that are likely to make many in the audience uncomfortable. (Indeed, more than one person walked out at the performance I attended.) The performer's self-generated sound effects are extremely evocative and conjure up images far more graphic than the actions performed by the innocent-looking puppets.

The show follows the same structure as Cooper's book and incorporates large chunks of its text (with the author himself serving as this production's dramaturg). This includes the rather unusual choice to break the action by bringing up the house lights and having the audience read short pieces supposedly written by David. However, what makes the production so engrossing is Capdevielle's fully-committed and ultimately harrowing performance. The final segment of the play is a tour-de-force that dispenses with the puppets as Capdevielle-as-David uses superb ventriloquist skills to bring the story to its chilling denouement.

-- Dan Bacalzo

Philippe Quesne in L'Effet de Serge
(© Martin Argyroglo Callias Bey)
Single men who live alone may find themselves slightly identifying with moments in Philippe Quesne's L'Effet de Serge, a production from France's Vivarium Studio performed in English playing at 3LD. This wistful, thoughtful, and genuinely hilarious piece of meta-theatrics takes theatergoers into the home of a man named Serge, who offers mini-performances in his home for friends who drop by.

Before his guests arrive, Serge engages in activities that might be uncomfortably familiar for some guys: eating ordered-in pizza alone while watching TV or playing a pitiful solo game of ping-pong. In these instances, L'Effet can bring to mind some of Samuel Beckett's plays, particularly as Quesne's sad sack demeanor and lanky physique often bring to mind Bill Irwin. Similarly, like Irwin, Quesne can communicate volumes with the simple turn of a wrist, the arch of an eyebrow, or a curl of a gentle smile.

The show, though, isn't a mere contemporary existential meditation. It's also an insightful examination of people's need to create and find acceptance. After offering his bizarre "shows" -- which generally involve his toys and a wonderfully diverse array of music -- Serge looks at his guests almost pleadingly for some sort of approval, but his guests often find themselves at a loss to compliment him on what they've just seen, including a moment in which he transforms himself into a sort of human electrical circuit.

The merriment of L'Effet comes not only from moments when Serge is performing for others, but also its astute depiction of human behavior and some of the activities that Serge engages in while he's alone. A sequence in which Serge dances to a French art song cover of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" is hysterical not only because of the revision to the pop classic, but also because of the climax to Quesne's decidedly peculiar gyrations.

Equally amusing are the show's bookends in which Quesne offers glimpses into other pieces that he's created. Given how marvelously entertaining L'Effet can make single life seem, it's hard not to wish he were offering these two works too while he's in the city.

-- Andy Propst

A scene from The Devil You Know
(© Richard Termine)
Ping Chong's The Devil You Know, performing at La MaMa E.T.C., is a charming puppet theater adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benet's short story "The Devil and Daniel Webster." Created in association with the multi-disciplinary troupe Phantom Limb, the piece emphasizes the fable-like nature of the tale, about a Faustian bargain struck between poor farmer Jabez Stone (voiced by Mark Jaynes) and the devil, who goes by the name of Scratch (voiced by Steven Rattazzi).

The dialogue is pre-recorded, and features narration by director/adaptor Chong along with the vocal talents of several others, including Michael Pemberton as lawyer and politician Daniel Webster (based on the real-life figure of the same name) and the fabulous Lola Pashalinski as Ma. Some of the lines might come across as overly cheesy if delivered by flesh and blood actors, but when matched to the puppets, they somehow seem appropriate.

Among the production's biggest assets are the detailed marionettes designed by Erik Sanko, which are given life by a terrific team of puppeteers (Sabrina D'Angelo, Oliver Dalzell, Marta Mozelle MacRostie, Ronny Wasserstrom, Anne Posluszny, Jenny Campbell, Matthew Leabo, Edouard Sanko, and Michael Schupbach). They manage to make the stylized figures extremely expressive -- particularly in some of the early scenes with Jabez, Webster's big court scene in front of a jury of the damned, and a modern-day figure driving a car.

However, while that last-mentioned puppet -- which the performers manipulate by hand instead of strings -- is nicely utilized, Chong's incorporation of present-day figures isn't as well-realized as it should be. Presumably, these puppets (which also include a woman on a BlackBerry) are meant to punch up the contemporary relevance of the story, which serves as a cautionary tale about greed and ambition at the expense of others. However, they seem shoehorned into the tale, which otherwise unfolds with a mesmerizing beauty.

-- Dan Bacalzo

Anna Gorajska, Tomasz Szuchart, Tomasz Nosinski, and
Natalia Kalita in Versus--In the Jungle of Cities
(© Teatr Nowy)
The four fearless performances that propel Versus--In the Jungle of Cities, playing at the Public Theater, are almost enough to make recommending this Polish revision to an early work from Bertolt Brecht obligatory. Unfortunately, because of the supertitles used to translate the Polish text, it's not always possible to simply focus on the actors, making Versus an often frustrating experience.

During the course of Radoslaw Rychcik's highly stylized 75-minute production, Anna Gorajska, Natalia Kalita, Tomasz Nosinski, and Tomasz Szuchart (who perform in tank tops and underwear) deliver not only the drastically pared-down script with intensity, they also execute Dominika Knapik's choreography and stylized movements with an emotional rawness and honesty that proves riveting.

Brecht's play focuses on Szlink (Szuchart), a wealthy man, who sets about to destroy Garga (Nosinski), a poor worker, and in the process, the two become inextricably locked -- both physically and psychically -- in a fight to the death. Along the way, Garga's irresolute and often dissolute girlfriend Jane (Gorajska) and his commanding yet demure sister Maria (Kalita) are drawn into the battle.

Ultimately, it's the moments when performers are not speaking but rather simply moving that Versus proves most successful. At the production's midpoint, Garga and Marie manage to find a moment alone together which begins with warmth, playfulness and genuine love. As the scene progresses and the performers loop through Knapik's choreography though, the encounter turns heated, argumentative, and truly sad. It's clear that the siblings' relationship has been effectively destroyed in the course of a few minutes.

-- Andy Propst