"WE HATE IT when our friends become successful," or so sang some insufferable British mope-star. Me, personally, I'd abbreviate that: We hate our friends. Period. This is what one witnesses near the beginning of Margolis Brown's Vanishing Point, as a row of characters, invisibly tethered to rolling chairs, pull those who attempt to break rank back into line. Misery, as it goes, loves company, and fear doesn't mind conformity either.
Sampling freely from the full phyla of performing arts--dance, drama, multimedia--Margolis Brown's accessible, evocative form might be classified under the seemingly lower-order designation of mime. But until Bip and his comrades in whiteface bite the dust, Margolis Brown call it Movement Theater; so will we.
While last year's Vidpires explored the ephemerality of image through a barrage of technical gadgetry, Vanishing Point is devoted to travel. That's travel in the broadest sense of that word--more odyssey than walkabout. Which is to say we're talking birth, school, work, death. To this extent the lobby of the Southern Theater has been converted into a makeshift railway station replete with maps, luggage from grandma's closet, asynchronous clocks, and the faint murmur of a PA system. Achtung theatergoers: Absorb the atmosphere before the show.
When a group of four in sheer body suits sways on a platform above a projection of waves, one can interpret the event on a few levels. It's the tired and the hungry and the freedom-yearners crossing the ocean to the big copper lady in the harbor. Or we can go fetal: The brine that buffets our actors is womb-juice, in the hold of the great ship mommypop. In the next scene, Tony Brown, in vintage navy suit and fedora, flops prostrate upstage, a slow-motion salmon with briefcase attached. Clearly, this life thing isn't going to be easy.
The suitcase-carriers enter in their rolling chairs, locked into tight, airline-row formation. We return to the theme of the immigrant passage, as Tony Brown's effective soundscape emits a Norman Vincent Peale motivational speech. The actors go bug-eyed and begin to scoot like crabs. The choreography is exactingly identical--even their hair is moving in sync. One imagines these actors have nightmares populated by suitcases, rolling chairs, Kari Margolis, and a riding crop. The actors grimace; a pair conducts a relay race around their luggage while the others cheer. Peale speaks: Make an estimate of your true abilities, then raise that 10 percent.
A few scenes later, more actors in the guise of suitcase-salmon swim across the stage at the foot of three tall, adjacent ladders. Peale speaks: You are worth half a million. Brown--suitcase spiritually bonded to his body--begins to scale the first ladder. He will spend the rest of the production on the ladders, flopping as if without bones up and down their rungs, to an unending series of false summits. When Brown descends the third ladder, one senses his time (and the show) will expire. Like the sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives. Peale speaks: Are we not salesmen?
Time passes. Brown works the ladder, while in the foreground the rest of the actors don numbers on their backs, then pair-chair dance to Hank Williams's "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." They circle, standing now, surrounded by their baggage, for a marathon dance--an exhausting mating ritual in comic shorthand--then proceed to wilt from the ring, one by one, grasping at each other desperately. No one gets out of here alive.
If one were to muster a criticism of the production (I suppose that's my duty) it's that these characters really do exist as numbers from scene to scene: One remembers them only as the one who furrows her eyebrows funny, or the one who floats with balloons. One thinks of Sergei Eisenstein, who constructed films without legit characters, favoring a narrative of editing and ideology. In much the same way, Vanishing Point sacrifices audience identification through collective abstractions of character. Only Brown feels familiar in any significant sense, and his trajectory is mostly metaphoric: up and down. The near-estrangement that sometimes results betrays the enormous visual appeal of each beat of this production.
At play's end we peer inside one of the suitcases, as an actor methodically takes out a few schmattes and a white dress, then returns them and shuts the case. Open, unload, reload, shut. All work and no play makes Jill a dull girl. The suitcase flaps open and closed like the wings of a butterfly, newly emerged from the cocoon. As the cast, stripped to skivvies and neckties, make their way offstage-right, Tony Brown descends the third ladder, stage-left. Strings weep in the soundscape. Sunrise, sunset. The cast reenter and begin to scale the first ladder, a conga-line of life-bureaucrats. They carry their baggage. CP
Vanishing Point runs at the Southern Theater through April 14; call 340-1725 for tickets.