Longtime fans of downtown experimental theater troupe Mabou Mines may get a lot out of the pair of Lee Breuer’s one-acts Pataphysics Penyeach, now at P.S. 122 as part of the Under the Radar Festival. However, those less familiar with the company’s work are likely to find themselves a bit dumbfounded. (You can purchase a combination package to see both plays, but if you do so, there’s a roughly 45-minute break between the two shows.)
In the first piece, Summa Dramatica, Ruth Maleczech stars as Sri Moo Parahamsa, a literal “sacred cow” of the theater who is decked out in a bovine costume with South Asian accents. The show is subtitled “A postscript to the Gifford Lectures of William James,” and purportedly riffs on these addresses, presented in Scotland in 1901-1902. Parahamsa embarks on a long-winded monologue on religion, psychology, and theater that engages with Alfred Jarry’s pataphysics, a “philosophy” that parodies modern science.
Maleczech utilizes a curious Indian accent for a large segment of the piece, but really comes alive once she doffs the bovine headdress and speaks in her own voice which has a greater range of expression. The show includes an amusing pie-chart, rather tongue-in-cheek slides, and a special video appearance by Marge Simpson (voiced by Leslie Mohn). However, the theoretically dense joke wears thin fairly quickly — even for its 40-minute running time.
The second piece, Porco Morto is a sequel to Mabou Mines’ 2002 show, Ecco Porco. In it, the character of Ponzi Porco PhD has died and Greg Mehrten delivers a deadpan eulogy to a video and slide montage that sums up the pig’s life, and speculates on his death. Mehrten then transitions into doing the voice of Ponzi Porco, who literally rises from his casket (in puppet form) to address the audience.
This segment of the play is raunchy and often quite comical, as Ponzi talks about his literal love affair with The New York Times, which includes a full puppet nudity sequence that makes Avenue Q look tame. Video designer Eamonn Farrell and animator John Infantino also include a manipulated image of Times critic Charles Isherwood as part of the proceedings. It’s nothing that risqué, but does induce a chuckle or two.
The satirical one-acts are presented with style, but it may prove difficult for audience members to unpack their significance. For example, what’s up with the burkas worn by the puppeteers in Porco Morto? Like much of the company’s work, the imagery invoked is strong, but meaning proves elusive.