BWW Reviews: THE TUMBLING Is A Raw Mind-Bender
When I think of Fringe, I picture Fort Fringe: its tall white tent with temporary walls, its buzzing bar, its wildly graffiti-ed entrance, its decrepit but serviceable building housing bouncing cabarets and low-tech classical adaptations facing New York Avenue. But Fort Fringe has a back door, a secret entrance of sorts, that leads audiences like Lucy into the Wardrobe or Alice down the Rabbit Hole to weird and wonderful worlds that contain some of the most challenging theater in the Capital Fringe Festival. That back door is a little portal on L Street, stuck between the Eritrean Cultural and Civic Center and apparently abandoned neighbors. This postern provides access to two spaces, the Redrum and the Bedroom. The latter was my destination for The Tumbling, which is my pick for the most mind-shatteringly different piece of theater at the Capital Fringe.
The theater called the Bedroom feels like a found space, with an incredibly shallow playing area and an equally shallow seating arrangement. The chairs at the back of the room are closer to the stage than the front rows at many of the bigger venues in town. This setup creates an automatically intimate environment, which is perfect for a play that is as intensely personal and psychological as The Tumbling, a show that breaks many of the rules of traditional and contemporary theater.
The Tumbling breaks a traditional rule of theater adaptation. Usually, theatrical adaptations take some sprawling work, a novel or an epic poem, and condenses them into an active and sleek product that emphasizes the story of the original work. The Tumbling does the exact opposite, taking the brief nursery rhyme of Jack and Jill and expanding it to a dense 50 minutes, full of words and insane action, with songs and text in a variety of languages. How does it get that much out of Jack and Jill? The poem becomes a template for the author to strip mine his own psychology and present it in its most raw form onstage.
The Tumbling's author himself breaks another rule of contemporary theater. Generally, theater today is a massively collaborative effort, taking dozens of people to put on a production, pulling creative contributions from a host of talent, only a fraction of which you see onstage as actors. In The Tumbling, Stephen Notes, the playwright, director, and lead actor, seems to be the central and sole focus of this production. In almost any other show you would see today, there would be other artists acting as barriers between the audience and the impetuous thought and emotion of the author. Not here. Mr. Notes is running things here and I can only assume that it is his psychology, with Jack as proxy, that is being explored in this play.
The final and biggest rule that The Tumbling breaks is rooted in this exploration of psychology. Theater, I've been told, is supposed to have a structure, a plot, a series of interrelated events that build to some cathartic conclusion. And the audience is supposed to be able to discern that structure, even only subconsciously, so that they can implicitly understand the cause and effect of the world of the play. The Tumbling throws that tradition out the window, baby, bathwater and plumbing system all at once. What's the first question that anybody asks about a new play, after all? "What is this play about?" For The Tumbling, that question either requires no answer or a very long one.
It starts with an almost blank canvas. A chair. White walls. Nothing else. There won't be any un-mimed props in this show. A couple of very small costume changes. The focus is entirely on the words of the play and the actors performing them. The play begins with Jack (played by the author) tied up in a chair in a dystopian future while being fed bad salad by Jill, his captor (played by Christine Asero). He is sent into a Matrix-like world via brain implements for "R & R." This world is a free-form, spasmodic concretion of Jack's (mainly sexual) desires, exploring his impotency, his self-loathing, his violation of sexual mores, his relationship with his mother, his hunger, and desire for sense in a senseless world. The Tumbling strings these subjects along in language straight from the Id in an order that is only discernable by the cast, and perhaps not even by them. The language and its form reminds me of what might come out of a patient's mouth if his brain was exposed and his cerebral cortex was being palpated.
I know that doesn't sound much like the nursery rhyme, though seeing this world as a twisted fever-dream of Jack as he recovers from his head injury is interesting. But, after a while, I didn't really care about how this play related specifically to the brief nursery rhyme or the false world created in the framing device's dystopian future. Those were just "ins," ways to get invested in the play before it took me on a wild, mind-ironing journey, even if that journey was spinning in place to disorient, then reorient, my brain.
That's the key to enjoying The Tumbling. Go in and don't expect a plot to be given to you on a platter. In this play, you're not going to care if the boy is going to get the girl, if the young prince is going to avenge his father's murder, or whether the lead characters are going to keep the family cherry orchard. Expect simply to dive in and try to recognize each symbol spoken of and how they relate to each other. You can't let any part just wash over you, unless you do that for the whole play. You have to invest yourself and investigate this play with your attention. One of the best ways to approach this play, I think, is to think of yourself as a psychologist in an asylum. The Tumbling represents the gibberings of one of your patients, and you are tasked with figuring out what his history is, what his defect is, what these impulses mean, and if and how he can be cured.
In that sense, The Tumbling is a classic Fringe show. It's one of the weird ones that no major theater in this city would ever produce. Which may be unfortunate because, unlike some productions at big houses in DC, I never looked at my watch during this performance. I was absorbed the entire run time of this strange piece. That makes The Tumbling a unique animal at the zoo of the Capital Fringe. It can only exist in this space, in this theatrical environment, and with these people. If you like strange theater, there really isn't a better place to be.
This is a play for people who like twisted and difficult puzzles, impossible riddles, and impenetrable modern art. This is a play for people who want to see raw impulse onstage, but can't stand the hokeyness of improv. If you've always wanted to ride the waves electric inside someone's brain and see through the unfiltered mind's eye, see The Tumbling. I can promise that it will be a vastly different experience from any experience you'll have at the Capital Fringe this year.
The Tumbling is playing at the Bedroom at Fort Fringe at 612 L Street NW in DC, near the Mount Vernon Square Metro station. It runs about 50 minutes. Tickets can be purchased at http://www.capitalfringe.org
All graphics are courtesy of the Capital Fringe Official Website.