Ignorant and Proud Of It!

How to dig avant-garde theater without understanding it

Time was when experimental theater I didn't get made me feel stupid. This is no longer the case, not because I've grown in perspicacity, but because I've learned to embrace such befuddlement. I don't kill myself anymore trying to fully understand stuff like Theater in My Basement's excellent UnderFlood, written by Chris Danowski and performed solo by Cherri Macht. I just sit back and hope to see something interesting or entertaining. Just in case, I bring a pillow. If I'm lucky, someone will slather herself with mud and dump a bowl of flour on her head.

The drawback of training myself not to over-think in the teeth of the abstract is that I sometimes fear I'm not thinking at all. For instance, when Macht did in fact slather herself with mud and dump a bowl of flour on her head, my first concern was for her dress. She wears a machine-washable cotton dress for the show, but it's brilliantly white, and at the Saturday matinee I attended, I couldn't help but wonder how she was going to get it clean for the evening show. Sure, there was time to wash it, but that seemed so unglamorous, and having two of the same costume is unforgivable prodigality in this time of budget constraints. When I sheepishly asked Macht about this trivial matter after the performance, I learned two things: 1) The dress is reversible; and 2) during the UnderFlood run, stain-related questions have outnumbered all other post-show queries. Make of that what you will.

If those worry lines don't go away, we'll send you an invite to the botox party: Cherri Macht in 'UnderFlood'
Willis Bowman
If those worry lines don't go away, we'll send you an invite to the botox party: Cherri Macht in 'UnderFlood'

I should add that Macht in her floured state is a force of nature, a strikingly eerie sight. She looks like a vivified clay statue from an ancient Mesopotamian civilization, freshly exhumed by a 15,000-pound bomb. And that, when one thinks beyond matters of soiled summer whites, makes sense. This hour-long show is about memory, false memory mainly, and it draws on imagery from one of those Greek tetrads of elements: earth, air, fire, and water, or hotness, coldness, dryness, and moistness. We hear songs such as Al Green's "Take Me to the River" and the Pointer Sisters' "Fire," and see black-and-white video loops of waterfalls and swaying curtains mega-projected on the back wall. The way the images are mottled and striped by the theater's crumbling-in-spots concrete further lends an aroma of antiquity.

In preparing for UnderFlood, Macht says, she recalled living alone in an old apartment where the previous tenants seemed to linger like mysterious ancestors. Set in a Spartan apartment, the production has Macht playing several fuzzily discrete characters, if you'll grant such a paradox. One might be the current resident, a writer who never gets past a blank page; another--or maybe the same?--character is a wide-eyed, suspicious adolescent. Others are imagined former residents, who are given deliberately phony and funny Irish and Scottish accents.

The stage is highlighted by a beautiful vintage floor radio, which hums with a voice (Macht's) that sounds somewhere between that of Marlene Dietrich and Dr. Ruth Westheimer. The radio becomes an imaginary friend and a disembodied director, offering pithy notes (my favorite: "too Irish"). Later, Macht dances with a life-sized stick puppet, and there's nothing sad about it. Rarely since the salad days of Macauley Culkin has living alone been so action-packed.

 

In the one-act Dark Is the Night, playing with Molly S. Levine's Starving Necrophilia at the Center for Independent Artists, young Hungarian-bred writer-actor Szilárd Várnai portrays a young Hungarian writer (write what you know!) who falls in love with a married man. The relationship, which is charted in a charming mock melodramatic fashion, ends on the sourest note, but the piece closes with touching optimism. Plus, the Hungarian accent is impeccable.

I was considerably less taken with Starving Necrophilia, which tracks a woman or various women who suffer from psychological ailments both rare and run-of-the-mill. Most sensational is the titular malady, which Levine describes in prose that's as pretentious as the whoopee-making is preternatural. There's also a lot of collegiate musings about the vacuity of TV commercials and fashion magazines (who knew?), and a tiresome amount of slithery vamping that's either a self-tribute to the actor's callipygian form or a commentary on the enduring influence of Jennifer Beals's performance in Flashdance.

 
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