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Changing the Nature of Art by Becoming Art by Grace Cavalieri

On the Banks of the Surreal


Plays by:
Jean Cocteau, Michel De Ghelderode, Eugene Ionesco, Rene’ Magritte, Tristan Tzara.

Performed by: The Xoregos Performing Company
The Bank Street Theater
155 Bank Street, New York City

The Xoregos Performing Company has produced an evening unprecedented in recent New York theater history. Artistic Director/Producer Shela Xoregos has taken five plays by surrealists from the early part of the 20th century, and displayed them back to back for an evening of “surprise.” A bold venture. Whether or not you love the shock of the old, you will have an opportunity to see what ideas heralded non-objectivism in art; and, how it actually looks, presented by a top notch synchronized ensemble of actors, who are singers, who are dancers. No, these are not musical productions, let me be clear, but each play is directed by world class choreographer Shela Xoregos so the evening is about motion—intellectual, physical, spiritual.

“The Gas Heart” by Tristan Tzara features actors who are an eye (Dirk Weiler,) an ear (Rupak Ginn,) neck (Jen Arvay,) mouth (Niae Knight,) an eyebrow (Rachel Lu,) and a nose (Christopher Berryman.) Now do you see where we’re heading? The piece is a language poem of non-sequiturs. And underlying all is the question,” What are words worth?”  Dadaism is deconstructivism, and it was originally “protest art,” critical of existing art environments. However, at the heart of non-objectivism is the search for human essence amidst the rubble of language artifacts. There are poetic moments,” my teeth tremble,” just as there must be if we take words and throw them up in the air to see where they’ll land. But this is not all that accidental. Someone is in charge here, for the space is choreographed and the deliveries are coordinated to create a certain consciousness. Creating consciousness in front of your very eyes is not a task for the beginning director, and it has taken Xoregos to inflate the hydraulic under dissonance to make harmony. “Do you know to slide on the sweetness of my spirit,” says one character. That’s poetry enough for me amidst the clatter. Chief among these actors, all superb as body parts, we notice Rachel Lu and Dirk Weiler. It sets the tone for an evening of orchestrated irreverence. Langauge frees us. The voice is its engineer.

Xoregos could be Queen of Segueways. She can put a whole play on in a 30-second slot, and so we have a song that almost happens by singer John Rose, leading us to the second play of the night, “Escurial,” by Michel De Ghelderode.

“Escurial” is a 3-character piece -- a King (Peter Johnson,) a Jester (Rodney Sheley,), a Monk, (Christopher Berryman,) marking time while the Queen lies dying. The subtext which emerges is through farcical interchange between the Jester and the King. The Joker was lover to the Queen and the King plays with foreknowledge. If “The Gas Heart” was about language as meaning, “Escurial” is about language as a sounding board. The balance works between the Jester and the King: treachery, vengeance, and hatred, Shakespearean qualities we are used to on stage, but what interests me more is the layering of meanings. We see the Jester and King trade headpieces . We understand the scorned King to be a misogynist (“Another Queen can easily be found.”) –and the even greater levels of domination and submission—master and subject—the ugliness of power. Rodney Sheley uses his lyrical movements to act the part. Peter Johnson, a classical actor, perfects the King. The text is a treasure we’d not have a chance to see on America’s stage any time soon. As the Joker sits upon the throne he ends the farce, “This throne is too high. It makes one giddy.”

“The Intermission is another Shela Xoregos bridge with a " DaDa poet " (Niae Knight) delivering poems to the audience in the lobby and outdoor promenade.

Act 2 begins with a monologue by Jean Cocteau, “ The Practical Joke.” As one can imagine a practical joke is by nature not very funny, but it is very well done by Actor Rupak Ginn. Rene Magritte authored “The Round Square.” (I did not know Magritte as author, so one more plus for the night.) It’s a runaway piece and this time very funny, a meteor gone before you know it, but not before an unusual cast bow.

Now our interlude is John Rose actually singing a song (anonymous composer, circa 1840) provided by scholar/musicologist Eugene Abrams. Sounds a little pre-Gilbert- and -Sullivan, Rose tells me later. The piece reveals, in content and delivery, the nature of true humor.

Eugene Ionesco’s “Maid To Marry” rounds out the evening. Although Shela Xeroxes invented the previous plays, she co-directed this with David Ostwald. I’ve known Xoregos’ credentials for the fanciful, so I had to know how many stage directions Ionesco actually included in his text. I asked to see the script. It says: “Two characters sit on a park bench.” I paraphrase a word or two, but there was not much more. I’m glad I asked. The stage work is replete with every child’s game you can imagine (and not imagine) in a kaleidoscope of theatrical activity. This interests me, because an audience will go out believing Ionesco was the Roman fountain of ideas, and will never realize who actually trimmed the tree with creativity.

When asking a friend (who had not yet seen the show) what he thought of DaDa/Surrealism, he said, “I think I know why it died out.” I answered , “Go see this evening and maybe you’ll regret that it did.”

I am always in love with the technical so special kudos for sound engineer Joe Galione, and light man Cris Dopher. In praise of the spectacle, I cite Costumer Amy Elizabeth Bravo, along with phantasmagoria costuming by Galina Kuznetsova.

On The Banks Of The Surreal runs Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8pm, Sundays 6pm through August 21.


Grace Cavalieri is a Playwright, a Poet, and Producer of “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress" on public radio.

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