Lost in America

Blown away: Tony Brown weathers the gusts of fate in <i>American Safari</i>

Blown away: Tony Brown weathers the gusts of fate in American Safari

Things are already spinning when the audience enters the Red Eye performance space to see the Margolis Brown Company's production of American Safari. Specifically, a picnic table can be seen making slow, graceful revolutions onstage, propelled by a seated couple (Gregory G. Schott and Kym Longhi), who grasp the table with one hand and tug at it while making little pitter-patter motions with their feet. In the meantime, the performers snack on potato chips and swat at unseen flies in delicate, slow gestures. It's an eerie image of contented suburban domesticity in orbit, a cross-section of the globe swathed in pink, checkered gingham.

American Safari is a pared-down production for this movement-theater company, essentially designed as a solo show for the troupe's cofounder, Tony Brown. The sets are small and easily transported: a lawn chair and several fans, an electric car, a desk. The scenes are brief and deceptively simple: a man going to work, a stewardess pointing out emergency doors, a child making breakfast. With these scenes, Brown and director Kari Margolis have fashioned a peculiar piece of nostalgia, a gentle fantasy of suburban living, seemingly circa 1964. In one of the play's 16 loosely connected short scenes, we see Super-8 film images from a boy's life: his first bicycle, for example, which he sits on with a mixture of pleasure and nervousness as his mother accidentally pushes him down a steep hill. Except it is not a boy at all; it is Brown himself, dressed in short pants. Brown will spend the entire production playing variations of this same hapless character, mostly as a defeated middle-aged man.

Brown has an engaging physical presence; in many ways he calls to mind Danny Kaye, not just in the gangly, slapstick sense of his own body but also in his perpetually put-upon facial expression. Indeed, many of the scenes in American Safari play out as the sort of extended comic riffs Kaye mastered in movies such as The Court Jester, but they're offered here in slow motion and decorated with offbeat theatrical flourishes. This is not the suburban life I knew growing up, which consisted mainly of bored teenagers hanging out in malls or getting drunk in parking lots outside bowling alleys. Instead, this is a suburb in which a trip to Disneyland results in a lecture on atomic warfare delivered by a slightly malfunctioning animatronic speaker in an easy chair.

Since arriving in the Cities from New York some seven years ago, the Margolis Brown Company has labored to train a company in its highly demanding method of movement, which draws on mime, modern dance, and the physical poetic of Buster Keaton. One suspects the difficulty in this endeavor, combined with exacting performance standards and high production costs, has led to the company's long absences from public stages. In the past five seasons, Margolis Brown has presented a scant handful of shows, and few new works. Yet there's evidence the company hasn't allowed this time to go to waste, but rather has been developing an increasingly sophisticated arsenal of video and soundtrack techniques. American Safari makes extensive, imaginative use of projected images. In one scene, Brown, dressed in a bathrobe, stretches and crosses to a bathroom sink, peering at himself in the mirror. Then he exits the stage--but his reflection does not, remaining behind to cry out desperate affirmations such as "You can do it!" It's a deft bit of legerdemain, swapping the smoke and mirrors of old-fangled stage magic with rear-projected trickery, but the results are the same: gasps from the audience.

These projected video images show up without warning, always to surprising effect. Later in the production, as Brown reads through a newspaper, lonely words from the singles ads tumble down the page. "Are you in a rut?" drifts across the newspaper, followed by a second projected word, in bland newspaper type: "Single?" In another scene, a telemarketer's head appears without warning in the lid of a charcoal grill, forcefully pushing credit cards onto unresponsive guests at a barbecue. The moment is disconcerting, because who wants to find a talking head in their hibachi? But there is also a discomforting familiarity to the scene: Who hasn't received that very same phone call just as they were preparing to eat?

The whole of American Safari mixes strangeness with disquieting familiarity in this way, and the resulting production has a strange attitude of pensiveness that underscores every scene. Take the scene where Brown brings a date to dinner. Clearly infatuated with his dining partner, Brown delivers a coarse approximation of romantic behavior: He coos at his date attentively, dancing circles around her to attract attention. The date, I should point out, is played by an armless mannequin, whom Brown simply lugs around by her midsection, substituting his hands for hers when she needs them. The results would be much sillier were it not for the thought balloons projected above their heads. Midway through the date, Brown's mannequin turns away from him, and the words "I think I'll just quietly fade away" appear above her head. Few companies would stage a scene in so preposterous a way; fewer still would include such hints of loneliness and despair.

Sometimes it seems that the boldest thing a theater can do is present an ambivalent mood. Audiences want to know how to feel about a production, and they look to the actors onstage for clues. But Brown's hangdog expression and American Safari's unhurried staging offer no clear interpretation. The events onstage look like comedy, but they sure don't feel like it. Perhaps that's the boldest statement of the production, as the promise of the suburbs has always been a resolution to ambiguity. There, you would know who your neighbors were and what was expected of you. You'd know your station in life. Margolis and Brown look at the suburbs and find neither obvious hilarity nor certain tragedy--just endless uncertainty.