BWW Review: JEN ROSENBLIT I'M GONNA NEED ANOTHER ONE at The Chocolate Factory Theater is Disarming, Unpredictable and Potent
Some of the most thought-provoking, European-style, non-linear choreographic multi-layered performance art took place right here in NYC at the Chocolate Factory Theater in the form of Jen Rosenblit I'm Gonna Need Another One. Rosenblit lives and works in Europe (Germany and Switzerland mostly and her home base is Berlin) but as an American-born conceptualist, writer, performance artist and provocateur, she still considers NYC to be a vital place to present her sometimes challenging, powerfully engaging and always collaborative work.
I'm Gonna Need Another One is one of those projects. As many such pieces, it's a bit hard to define or fit into the box of a single genre, much like Rosenblit herself. But the element at the heart of the performance is the text that is the basis for the monologues spoken throughout the physical actions that shape and inform them. The text took about a year to develop from the initial concepts and as a part of this co-production between Sophiensale (DE) and The Chocolate Factory, supported by Hauptsadtkulturfonds, it was translated into German by Julia Schell and presented in the form of a book (designed by Kuchar&Co. with photography by Adham Hafez, both of whom acted as multi-level collaborators and were credited as co-directors) that was passed around before the show began.
The translator's note was read aloud to commence the performance before the audience was led upstairs to the white box space. It was clear that Schell was quite taken with Rosenblit's text and the cleverness of her sometimes paradoxical poetry, though she admitted that the various play-on-words and contradictory statements which could be taken for granted in English are akin to jumping through hoops to make the same sense in German, where no direct translation could have fully portrayed the author's poetic nuances. Fortunately, this was an English-speaking audience and none of the subtlest puns or metaphors were lost on the attendees who often punctuated Rosenblit's fragmented monologues with giggles and knowing glances. The text would serve as an anchor and even lend a narrative thread to the non-linear, irreverent and unpredictable actions in I'm Gonna Need Another One. It's a bit of a journey down the rabbit hole with Rosenblit as a mix of the mad and wise characters and the viewers both charmed by the curious world and seeking guidance back to home or a place slightly more sane. But this particular guide isn't letting you off so easily -- for she has invited us all to enjoy this twisted and uncertain journey.
Once the audience entered the space, they encountered Rosenblit amongst about a dozen green bricks of a porous, crumbly material (florists' blocks). Only clad in a tee shirt (which she sheds temporarily) and underwear (at some point, she puts on pants), Rosenblit's lack of self-consciousness about her own body -- that she uses as a storytelling tool throughout the piece to pose in awkward and vulgar positions, to don a horse hoof on one foot and clop around unsteadily, to build and destroy the small kingdom she's created, and to move gracefully or just for utilitarian purposes -- is so in-your-face disarming that it has a strange and unexpectedly refreshing effect of putting one at ease and neutralizing her gender, sexuality or size. The corporeal self becomes a mere vehicle for the action and text.
After some time of engaging with the green blocks while the viewers look on, seated on the floor forming a square around her, Rosenblit tears down the curtain revealing both Oz (in the form of Gerard Kurdian, a performer and musician who provided the various soundscapes to I'm Gonna Need Another One, from ethereal and ambient to intense and foreboding with a laptop, drum machine and electric guitar) and the seats for the attendees in a more traditional proscenium arrangement.
The Wizard of Oz is a pervasive theme throughout and the production -- even the green foam bricks that comprise the world she creates, manipulates and subsequently causes the collapse and destruction of -- are evocative of the Emerald City, a fantasy land built on lies and deception. Urban planning, architecture, bodies, ideas, lostness and broken parts are all concepts at the heart of her work.
While cutting apart a hay broom she addresses the audience, "You are curious about building a house but you become increasingly interested in the individual parts." This exploration led into a fascination with fragments, parts that make a whole but aren't enough by themselves, recurring thoughts and themes that permeate the piece then a sudden shift into a declaration, "You are a pawn but act like a knight," launching into metaphoric descriptions of a human-horse hybrid being whose "favorite is being rode bareback" (this elicited chuckles when it would have flown over the German-speaking audiences) and "you find the fragility of the body confusing."
Other characters appear, enacted in part by Rosenblit physically but spoken about in the proclamation of "you are..." These outward projections make for deeper engagement with the audience where many solo shows and monologues that utilize "me" and "I" can feel a bit too navel-gazing and individualistic. This device is sometimes used by lyricists -- notably Bob Dylan -- instead of the more traditional "I feel, I think" musings. The use of a statement beginning with "you are" can be interpreted as a declaration or accusation to an unknown intended addressee, to the audience themselves or, as Rosenblit mentioned to me -- a reflection back to the speaker as a tool used in psychology where a therapist will repeat back what the patient expressed about themselves. So, in that case, Rosenblit morphs from the horse-human hybrid (and Chiron the Greek God of pain who is half animal) to a compulsive rearranger of furniture, an octopus that is solitary when not mating and leaves its limbs behind when attacked, to a sous chef grating celery and arranging a picnic of particles all the while reciting her potent, poignant and ponderous poetic verse with a deadpan seriousness that acts as a wink because with her seemingly austere expression, she is really merely toying with you. This is Rosenblit's world and she is in charge, you are only along for the ride.
As she transitions between characters and phrases, silent gestures and stark stares, she tramples over the emerald blocks and crushes them with a heel or rips them apart with her bare hands until they crumble into seafoam colored dust. She obliterates all around her like a petulant child with a malevolent streak of cruelty. But there are moments of rebuilding, such as when she tenderly sticks the yellow hay from the cut up broom into a florist's block for the monologue entitled "Cultivating a Wheat Field." The Fertile Crescent also draws comparisons to sex which she considers "is hard to keep" and she revisits memories of the other characters mentioned before like one recalling past lovers. She then returns, like Dorothy, to the opium-laden poppy field of dreams and confusion and ponders that the Lion is the best character because he's not missing a part of himself, only in search of a trait he was courageous enough to admit to be lacking.
The visual cycles of creation and obliteration of a man-made world were provocatively symbolic of the cityscapes and civilizations that humanity has constructed and destroyed until only rubble remained.
Rosenblit has been commended for being an excellent, open and generous collaboration. Her interest and curiosity within these topics and themes brought her to seek the advice and expertise of urban planner Adam Kucharski (who also designed and typeset the book). She queried him as to how one builds an illegible city, his reply was: "You don't. The only cities worth creating are legible cities," which is something he knows about from his extensive background in the field.
Adham Hafez, a Cairo-born multifaceted creator living and working between NYC, Europe and the Middle East (much like the artist herself) is credited as a guest director and dramaturgist. He spoke about their explorations of a mutual understanding of traveling, what make a place "home" and the constant mobility not only many artists but someone like Hafez who comes from a place where freedom of expression is complicated, have to tolerate. They also investigated the predetermined infrastructure of cities that defines where people shop, what they do and the rules they follow often without any awareness of that kind of massive control being inflicted upon them. Hafez also worked with Rosenblit to integrate text with the physicality and (along with Kucharski) how to explore her voice and tonal interpretations of the piece as well as multiple states and presences on stage. These layered performance techniques he implicated come from his long-term interest and research on Egyptian performance aspects where, "One shuttles between being a performer, the performance, characters on stage and everything in between."
Though performed as a solo piece, Rosenblit's I'm Gonna Need Another One is much more like a city -- it is an entity built, developed and perfected through collaborative efforts and so much more than the sum of its parts.
Photo Credit: Simon Courchel