Review: My Onliness is the Most Singularly Insane Show in New York Right Now
A Polish playwright, a mad king, and American Sign Language walk into an off-off-Broadway theater.
A man wearing a tinfoil papal tiara (and very little else) showers in a metal wash basin. Another man strums an electric guitar as handsome corseted gentlemen frolic with a rainbow unicorn. These are just the preshow diversions to Robert Lyons's My Onliness — a play that only gets stranger from there.
This world premiere co-production by One-Eighth Theater, IRT Theater, and New Ohio Theatre (which serves as the venue) is a delightful throwback to the golden age of off-off-Broadway, when uninhibited actors performed before an audience that was rarely sober (shots are served during this play). Coherence was of marginal importance, and the players certainly didn't set out to teach us anything. Now, as we languish in the dry summer of the issue play, when artists are expected to take a stand and educate us (even though, they will insist on Twitter, this is not their job) shows like My Onliness are as rare as unicorns — and just as magical to behold.
The story (as much as one exists) is about a megalomaniacal King (Daniel Irizarry) meeting the angry petitioner Morbidita (the intense Cynthia LaCruz). Rudely interrupting this audience between ruler and subject is the writer (Rhys Tivey, an exhibitionist with a clarion voice). He idly wonders why no one kills the mad King — or is it his father? It's hard to tell in the age of the strongman, when every charismatic leader fills the emotional void left by daddy.
In fact, My Onliness harks back to an even older kind of avant-garde, forged long before the Living Theatre and La MaMa. Lyons has heavily drawn from the work of Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (better known as Witkacy), a prolific Polish writer, philosopher, and painter from the early 20th century whose legacy has only barely survived World War II and communism. This is a shame, because as conveyed in My Onliness, Witkacy was a figure of unique imagination and vibrant theatricality, gleefully blowing a raspberry in the face of self-important power. Imagine how much more colorful our theater would be if drama students were weaned on Witkacy rather than that dull schoolmarm Bertolt Brecht.
Irizarry (who also directs) gives us the clearest sense in his performance as the King. At once frightening and ridiculous, Irizarry turns physical comedy into an extreme sport as he throws himself across the stage and contorts his face into ghoulish masks. Very much a general among infantrymen, he conscripts the audience to do his bidding and his commands are very hard to resist. As he howled in pleasure-pain with his legs straddling my chair, feet pointed toward the lighting grid, I thought, Well, at least he asked for consent. A walking, talking, screaming burlesque of absolute power, Irizarry would make the ideal clown if you were planning a birthday party for one of the Assad children.
It takes careful planning to pull off such madness and not have it devolve into masturbatory romper room nonsense, and Irizarry has succeeded with a production that is by no means polished, but is unfailingly entertaining. Jungah Han's thrust set, cut in half with a beautifully painted red carpet, features a constellation of metallic objects hanging from the grid (Irizarry delights in banging these together). Sound pervades the space through the original compositions of Kamala Sankaram, the tone of which often pushes against the lyrics (by Lyons) in playful and unexpected ways (Joanie Brittingham's late arrival as a coloratura soprano wearing a shower curtain helps to create the spectacular finale). The actors appear in various states of dress and undress in the production's dumpster couture costumes (by James Terrell and Brittani Beresford). Christina Tang bathes the stage in color with her LED lighting. It all adds up to a well-choreographed disaster.
Additionally, the production has been made completely accessible to Deaf audiences through the work of American Sign Language directors Alexandria Wailes and Kailyn Aaron-Lozano. Two mediums (the strikingly agile Deaf actors Dickie Hearts and Malik Paris) sign every lyric while hearing actors planted in the audience sign cues to keep everyone on the same page.
Throughout, Irizarry seamlessly occupies his dual positions as King and director: "We need to work out the lighting here," he shouts to the booth as a giant lobster leads the writer away to certain doom. Inadvertently, he poses a metatheatrical question within this anti-authoritarian farce: Does the experimental theater, like the nation-state, long for an absolute monarch — part cult leader, part daddy figure, who can inspire fearless action with his mad declarations?
However you come down on that question, you won't want to miss these 80 minutes of unbridled insanity. My Onliness is the kind of show that converts casual theatergoers into true believers in off-off-Broadway.