BWW Reviews: Bated Breath's INTERLUDES are Fleeting, Intriguing and Frustrating
Interludes: Beyond the Foot of the Stage
Conceived and performed by Bated Breath Theatre Company
Directed by Mara Lieberman
at Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor Street in Hartford, CT through July 28
According to my trusty Webster’s New World pocket dictionary, an interlude is “anything that fills time between two events, as music between acts of a play.” So what to make of Interludes, the new evening of theatre produced by Hartford’s newest dramatic entity, Bated Breath Theatre? True to its title, the piece feels like an interlude, something fleeting between the company’s first major production in town (Hunger) and whatever is next for the group.
As I mentioned in my review for Hunger, I am a big fan of Bated Breath’s initiative to do site-specific theatre. Whether it is Macbeth in a mausoleum or Doubt in a Dairy Queen, I’m pretty much game to see theatre pop up in surprising places. The second show in the troupe’s residency at Hartford’s edgy Real Art Ways, Interludes is pretty ideal for the space as the four short plays were constructed specifically reacting to the art installations currently on view. The plays can only be done here and they can only be done while these installations are in town. Performed for two nights (by the time you read this review, the show will be history), it adds to the overall transitory nature of the work.
Site-specific theatre requires two major factors for success. #1 – The perfect merger between the play’s content, the director’s vision and the venue; and #2 – A space that is conducive to theatre. Real Art Ways and Bated Breath pretty much nail the first as the plays herein were created responding to the gallery’s art. A major problem arrives with the second condition for success. With an approximate audience of 50, sight-lines were a major issue. I cannot give an honest assessment of the first piece of the evening, Stroke, because I could not see two-thirds of it. Other audience members’ heads, three brick columns and a double-fisting videographer made it impossible for me to see much of what was transpiring.
Each of the spaces provided an inadequate number of chairs to seat people and much of the audience was relegated to stand for a fair chunk of the near-two-hour running time. That is a long time to ask people to stand, especially if you are not able to see much. I would caution Bated Breath to add more performances and downsize the audience if they want to be successful performing pieces in this space. I’m not averse to standing, but accommodations for audience enjoyment need to be put in place.
Another challenge in using the site-specific model was that Bated Breath lost some of the ability to transform Real Art Ways’ space, which they did more successfully with Hunger. Theatre generally benefits from The Combined elements of set, costume, sound and lighting. In this instance, Real Art Ways’ galleries act as the set. With the exception of the gallery containing House of the Unmaker, the lighting is gallery lighting, not theatrical lighting. This robbed some of the pieces of atmosphere. Sound is provided by a moving laptop, rather than an immersive soundscape, usually an effective tool for abstract theatre. Richard Foreman, the Clown Prince of what I like to call “WTF Theatre,” knows that design can trump or amplify content if effectively deployed.
The first piece, Stroke, is a response to the computer art installation Encore by Ken Morgan. The piece was the most abstract, with equal parts movement, music and text. In many ways (from what little I could see), it was boundary-pushing in the way Real Art Ways’ art generally is. Interestingly, much of what the piece was reacting to was personal history. Morgan’s traveling family of acrobats and his stroke ultimately informed the performance more than the art.
The second piece Half-0ff was preceded itself by an amusing interlude featuring Briana Maia introducing her boyfriend Armani, a mannequin in an Evel Knievel-style jumpsuit with a soccer ball head and a bedazzled beak. The installation Half-Off by Phil Lique and Laura Marsh, sadly, was dismantled before the production, so the actors had to make do with just a few suggestive fragments – a sheet of paper with colorful, concentric circles and a sculpture of an emu-like bird.
Half-Off features a game show, fruit loops, organ theft, and out-sized characters. Although much of this short play is humorous, it also felt the most like an improv acting exercise. As all of the pieces are conceived by the ensemble, the focusing hand of a playwright was most acutely missed in this piece. Its frenetic energy and lack of context (again, the full installation of Half-Off had already been disassembled) made it difficult to figure out what the troupe was saying with the piece. Much like the abstract works on the wall, the point of abstract theatre need not be obviated, but the frazzled nature of Half-Off made one think it was an urgent message that was, at least, lost on me.
The third piece, House of the Unmaker, was presented in the most linear narrative of the evening. The play is performed in a noir style in and around artist Dennis Maher’s House of the Unmaker, a deconstructed home made out of parts from demolished houses. In some ways, the piece was the strongest of the evening, not because it was the most comprehensible. Bated Breath had successfully integrated the art into the playing of the piece. The lighting, although basic, was more moody and suitable for theatre. The costuming, only evident in this sequence, indicated greater engagement between the piece and the art. Best of all, they appropriately-sized the audience for the venue and everyone could see and enjoy the piece. Oddly, judging from the artist’s statement, the piece was also the most divorced from what Dennis Maher as an artist appeared to be saying with his work.
The fourth and final piece of the evening, Skin in the Flowing, is essentially a suite of four scenes played across three spaces. There was much in the playing of this sequence that felt well-married to the work on display. Dave Sinaguglia’s Skin in the Game, an installation of log cabin manliness, provided Bated Breath with the opportunity to examine what it means to be a modern male. Conversely, Samuel Rowlett’s An Unnamed Flowing, Nowhere highlights the natural world as a canvas, mirrored in the performance of light and shadow puppetry against the canvas of a tent.
The interludes in Interludes felt a bit clunky. The actors silently enter the space to perform Stroke, strike intriguing poses and then…a curtain speech. Between the vignettes, the audience is trafficked and arranged by a staff when a creative group like Bated Breath could have found some way to artistically move the crowd from show to show and space to space.
Overall, Interludes(subtitled Beyond the Foot of the Stage) feels like a valuable and interesting exercise. It also feels over-long and in need of a bit more coherence. The cast, particularly Debra Walsh and Julia Veronesi, is uniformly strong and capable of tackling director Mara Lieberman’s complicated aesthetic. With Interludes, Bated Breath continues to show that it is shaping up to be a much-needed artistic force in Hartford’s theatrical community. Hopefully, they will maintain their course for adventuresome theatre while honing their storytelling and presentation skills. I wait with bated breath to see what comes after the interlude.
Photo of Debra Walsh and Briana Maia courtesy of Bated Breath Theatre Company.