Ellen Stewart Theatre at La Mama ETC
New York, New York
April 29, 2023, afternoon
Dance performances are like a box of chocolates: unless you’ve seen it before, you never know what you’re going to get.
Broken Theater, a dance/ theater production conceived and directed by Bobbi Jene Smith, ended its run at the Ellen Stewart Theater at LA Mama ETC. in the East Village (one of many presentations during the La Mama Moves! Dance Festival) the day after I attended its sold-out Saturday matinee performance. So it’s no longer available to see. But before the performance I overheard several people saying that negotiations were underway to move it to Broadway or Off-Broadway. I don’t know whether that’s true or just wishful thinking, but if it happens, get a ticket. Broken Theater is one of the most unusual dance/ theater productions I’ve see, and one of the finest. Simply put, it’s a work of astonishing creativity, audacity, and genius.
It’s been awhile since I’d last seen Bobbi Jene Smith. That was via a 2017 documentary film directed by Elvira Lind relating to Smith’s experiences as a member of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company and thereafter: Smith was the film’s focal point. Since then, Smith’s been on a roll, accumulating many awards and considerable recognition for her choreography, none of which I was aware of. I should have been paying better attention; if I had been, maybe I wouldn’t have been as dumbfounded as I was – as “gumped” – by Broken Theater.
In wholly inadequate summary, the piece is a tale about a dance /theater company called Broken Theater, told from the inside out, which in the process of rehearsing a show of some sort eloquently addresses the trials and tribulations of dance and dance theater, relationships (love and loss and re-loved and re-lost coupled with mistakes and humiliation and more mistakes and humiliation), the distinction, if any, between actors /dancers and the roles they play, and a lot of other subjects along the way (like life itself) told in a manner that’s both humorous and exquisitely perceptive – and somewhat magical in the sense of being transported to a place that’s unreal but all too real.
Throw in a lot of wit, abundant physicality, mass confusion, a stage area that goes beyond the stage area, an astounding libretto, a little night music (or day music as the case may be) that seems to have nothing to do with what’s happening but somehow still does, nonstop action (including dance that may or may not look like dance), highly capable dancer /actors, a nod to Theater of the Absurd, dancing gorillas, excruciating and hilarious images (often concurrently), lots of fruit and nuts (some with moving arms and dancing legs), and maybe a MacGuffin or two or ten, and you have a rough idea of what Broken Theater is like. Or you could just imagine a group of individuals related by project, perspicacity, and lunacy, coat them with a solution of purifying libretto liberally peppered with zingers, and then toss them into a washing machine (or a dryer; they’re not fussy) after pushing some numbers on the machine that determine heat and agitation levels, and watch what happens. Your call; either way works.
Trying to describe Broken Theater beyond that is a little like trying to describe New York. There’s so much of it that one doesn’t really know where to begin. I suppose it’s best to begin at the beginning. The following is something of a blow-by-blow, which may be only remotely accurate, only partially in correct linear order, or only partially complete (all of which are appropriate for this piece).
As the audience enters, the stage is set with tables on both lateral sides of the performance area (hereafter I’ll call it a stage, though it’s more the equivalent of a black box without the black box) with a chair or two next to each, and a centrally-placed table, also with chairs (although one of them is set at an angle as if someone had just left). On the center table is a bowl of fruit, and there’s a jacket (as in suit or sport) hanging over the chair back; on the other tables are other indicia of a restaurant. Downstage from the two tables audience-right is a clothing rack on which various items of clothing hang, along with a few orphaned hangers. Deep upstage audience-left is a piano, and a chair or two are audience-right of that. So maybe it’s some night club.
Slowly, one by one, people enter the stage area. At first each does his or her own thing, and it’s not clear who they are. Eventually, a man walks from one of the audience-left chairs to the center table, obviously agitated about something. He attempts to move the chair back to the table, but it’s stuck. Without a word but obviously frustrated (at some point he pounds his fist into the table), he picks one of the apples from the bowl, eventually giving it to an audience-member with direction (silent as I recall) to throw it to him. The apple is thrown … and it hits him in the head.
He picks it up, and after easily moving the chair that previously was stuck (with no registration of that on his face), the man begins reciting numbers, apparently trying to get the proper sequence. Frustrated, he gives a card that has numbers printed on it in what appear to be various combinations to an audience-member (I knew it had numbers on it because I was seated next to her). But he doesn’t ask her to do anything with it; he just stands in deep thought (as if trying to divine the numbers through her) reciting number sequences but failing to remember all the numbers and/or state them in proper sequence. The result is yet greater frustration.
Eventually (after shouting “Bobbi” and briefly interacting with her) the man snaps his fingers as if calling for his server, a butler, or his wife; and a woman, very anonymous-looking, walks over from one of the tables audience-right. He makes his dissatisfaction with what’s on the table in front of him (papers, as I recall) clear, and starts pushing her around. The confrontation proceeds to the floor, where they appear to wrestle. After emotionlessly pinning him, she returns to her chair. The man continues to be frustrated and angry, pounds his hand again (or maybe his head – like what’s happening on stage, my notes aren’t clear), seems to try to paste one of the pieces of paper on the table to his face, which doesn’t work. All this is done with continuous, and continuously aggressive, physicality. After more stretching and contortions and heavy breathing, he screams at the top of his lungs “Fuck!” and angrily summons the person who “served” him: “Judy, come back this isn’t working” (or something like that – after “Judy” my pen slipped out of my hand). “Judy” moves forward, eventually joined downstage center by other seat occupants who previously had been scattered around the area silently observing or ignoring whatever’s happening, who proceed to dance seemingly out of control and moving in all directions at once, going totally gaga over whatever it is that’s happening. Then Bobbi turns to the assembled audience and cheerfully says: “Welcome to Broken Theater!”
And that’s just a sort of Prologue. [Later, almost as an aside, I heard Bobbi state somewhat nonchalantly: dancers don’t speak words; they speak numbers (bazinga!), which is remarkably insightful, connects to what the man at the center table was doing when he was trying to remember the full sequence of numbers during the “prologue,” and has no contextual meaning whatsoever. Or maybe it was “…don’t do words…” or “…don’t use words…” – I can’t find it in my notes though I know I wrote it down. Maybe I’d written it with the ink-point retracted, or maybe I just imagined it. [In the course of my extensive research in preparation for writing this review, I discovered that there’s a bee species in Brazil, Euglossa bazinga, named after Dr. Sheldon Cooper, a character in TV’s “The Big Bang Theory.” Reportedly the species is facing habitat loss – a little like Broken Theater. Sooner or later everything gets connected to everything else.]
As should be apparent, if I provided a similar account of the rest of the piece, it would take forever to write and read, and accomplish nothing. Suffice it to say that following Bobbi’s greeting, the narrative, such as it is, shifts to the theater group preparing for what appears to be a dance/ theater production, supplemented with music and madness. Eventually some of the characters’ roles and the actors playing them are identified (but only by first name). It turns out that “the man” in the prologue is the Director (or rehearsal director) of this would-be production, trying to make sense of the instructions provided and failing miserably … and repeatedly.
During the course of the piece seemingly everything but the kitchen sink happens: relationships appear to be established and then muddle and fall apart and then renew with different partners (or a second partner) and then dissolve; Judy humps the director; the leading man bares his bottom; the leading man gets groped by the lead actress (the “diva”), the “diva” gets groped by the leading man; the pianist (or maybe the cellist) morphs into the playwright (or director’s assistant or something like that); words and actions are repeatedly flubbed; and a stunt-man/ Puck is everywhere at once, mostly being the designated victim of other characters’ frequent physical aggression. Among other things. Nothing stays the same for more than a few seconds, and nothing goes the way it’s supposed to … except this production, which demonstrates that nothing goes the way it’s supposed to. And the comic timing throughout, as to both words and physical actions, is breathtakingly flawless. [It’s not exactly slapstick, though it includes a lot of slaps: Broken Theater isn’t Laurel & Hardy or Abbott & Costello (though as in those films, there are life lessons probed and not learned; and even though the characters to a greater or lesser extent (mostly greater) go bananas, there are no banana peels to slip on.]
The last particularly noteworthy characteristic is a pall of profound sadness that sits like a heavy fog over the madness that the audience sees.
At some point the rehearsal finally ends, and with it the piece – or so I thought. [Indeed, to my recollection, at that point Bobbi introduces all the performers to the audience – again just by first name.]
But instead of ending, when the cast retreats upstage, there’s an Epilogue. [If there’s a Prologue, there should be an Epilogue.] The focus shifts to two of the actors: the lead actress/ Diva (my descriptive word), and one of the male actors with whom she may or may not have had a relationship. They begin by touching each other’s faces gently. The gentleness gradually becomes aggressive, then more aggressive, with the Diva landing the loudest slaps. She returns to her seat on the opposite (audience-right) side of the stage area, rests for a second (or speaks briefly to another cast-member), and then returns to that table and that man. And the sequence repeats, with only slight differences. And repeats. And repeats again. And again. After what seemed like seven or eight such scenes, the stage area darkens, and one of the cast-members calmly (and with extraordinary albeit subdued emotion) sings, a cappella, the Pete Seeger classic “One Grain of Sand.” Immediately thereafter, lights out.
Each of the twelve actors in Broken Theater, most of whom no one outside of experimental dance/ theater would likely know (except Smith and maybe Schraiber, per the above-referenced documentary), is absurdly fabulous. Unfortunately, I can’t identify the roles each of them played because – the production’s one fault – the program doesn’t include actor photos or role indications. In alphabetical order, supplemented parenthetically with their roles as I’ve been able to deduce them and maybe an observation or two, are: Mikael Darmanie (Pianist /Dancer), Julia Eichten (Stage Manager/ Server/Wrestler/ Dancer – whose name as called out I heard as “Judy,” and whose against-apparent-type performance was as brilliant as it was surprising, Vinson Fraley (Dancer /Singer – who sang “One Grain of Sand” so memorably), Jonathan Fredrickson (the Director, whose performance should earn a Tony or Obie Award if either is applicable here, otherwise equivalent recognition), Keir GoGwilt (Violinist and performer without portfolio), Coleman Itzkoff (Cellist /Pianist and dramaturge or assistant director), Jesse Kovarsky (Stunt Man /Dancer/ Jester /Actor, whose performance should earn an award – or at least a Purple Heart), Yiannis Logothetis (Dancer /Actor /Gorilla), Or Schraiber (Leading Man /Dancer/Actor /Gorilla – a former Batsheva Dance Company member and married to Smith), Smith (Mother), Mouna Soualem (Leading Lady/ Diva /Dancer /Actor), and Stephanie Troyak (Leading Lady’s Understudy /Dancer /Actor). Individually and as part of the ensemble as a whole, they make Broken Theater as memorable as it is.
This is where you think the review ends. It doesn’t.
The program, such as it is, indicates that Broken Theater is produced by an organization titled AMOC in association with another organization, New Dialect, and is a co-commission among LaMama, Mass MoCa, AMOC, and New Dialect. AMOC is the acronym for American Modern Opera Company, founded in 2017 by Matthew Aucoin and Zack Winokur, which is described in the program as an organization that builds and shares a body of collaborative work, and is explicitly interdisciplinary. Not surprisingly, it also has a collective sense of humor: its web address is www.runningamoc.com.
Broken Theater reportedly grew out of a 2020 residency at Mass MoCa to confront pandemic issues relating to the performing arts. To my understanding, in something resembling its present form (though with the title “Open Rehearsal”), it premiered at 2022’s Ojai (CA) Music Festival and has been on tour for some time prior to its La Mama engagement. Most of the actors appear to have been part of the project from the beginning. And though Winokur has been credited as “dramaturg,” no credit is given for the libretto. I suspect it has a laundry list of creators, including but not necessarily limited to Smith and other cast-members. [Laundry list … washer /dryer (from paragraph 5) … get the connection?]
In a comment specifically relating to the Ojai Festival presentation, but applicable to the LaMama production since they’re essentially the same thing, Smith describes the creative process leading to Broken Theater as follows (quoted in the Ojai Program – yes, I read it – in a preview /feature written by Thomas May): “We all are behaving in this space together. So we try to find a common language of performing. The pandemic has been an amazing time to be reassured of the powerful link between music and dance, and how it goes beyond any sort of reasoning or words, and how that meeting point is something sacred….[In relation to the audience, it’s] like taking off the magic veil of a performance. But in doing that, actually, it becomes more magical.”