Is there a word in the English language that better holds the promise of joy than mash? Is there anything which better suggests ingredients marinating in a dish, creating by their integration with each other something fresh and savory – something to increase the vocabulary of the imagination? Consider, for example, the incomparable sour mash, from which good drinking proceeds. Or consider the mash note, which, if done subtly and with elegance, can be the precursor of a fine romance. Or the Monster Mash, or bangers and mash (surely the most suggestive food title ever), or MASH units. Is there a disagreeable connotation among them? Even the humble mashed potato, if integrated with sufficient butter and horseradish and dressed with an adequate coat of Cheddar, is a tasty side dish.
Thus the concept of a mash-up, promising the integration of theater with some of its sister arts (dance, music, graphics and the like) is full of excitement. Alas and goddam, the wish is not father to the act, at least in the version I saw on July 1. The artistic elements – some of them superb – are laid out before us, but if they enhance or support each other it is in a way too subtle for me to understand.
This is particularly true of the evening’s first project, Listening…, a collaboration among Kathleen Akerley, Jeremy Haik, and Vincent E. Thomas. It is the story of a man (Thomas) confronting for the first time questions of the self (who am I? where am I? why am I here?) And how does he resolve these questions? He dances – he dances damn well, with projections of himself (from a videocamera which Haik operates), also dancing, on the wall. This is fun to watch but does not help resolve the problems of the self, as far as I can see. Nor is the piece’s self-consciously ironic tone (Sigmund Freud, an Australian Aborigine, and a rooster come down to help answer the questions) particularly helpful. The Aborigine proposes that there is no difference between any of us. This does not answer the question, of course; it just changes the “I” to “we”.
The other two pieces add audience participation as one of their artistic elements. Of the two, I prefer Unscheduled Track Maintenance, a story which Dan VanHoozer and Psalmayne 24 conceived about an unanticipated Metro delay. Within a Twilight Zone-type framework (Joshua Drew does a passable Rod Serling), a hip-hop group (24, Jali-D and Waldo Robertson) spontaneously performs on a Metro car while it stops for unspecified reasons. (The audience participation portion includes donations for the group). During the middle of this performance, something unexpected happens, and afterward VanHoozer asks the audience questions, which we are allowed to answer simultaneously, to assure our privacy. The piece concluded with a brief speech against living in isolation. It is a little too earnest for my taste, and perhaps overstuffed with incident (it could lose the Twilight Zone material without disadvantage), but there are some provocative moments. The piece, by the way, makes no reference to the recent Metro catastrophe and I can’t imagine how the playwrights might possibly have worked it into this production.
Our host for the evening, incidentally, is the agreeably amusing magician David London. He has a few swell magic tricks as part of his repertoire but he mostly discharges his responsibility as Master of Ceremonies in the stance of a patter comedian, specializing in achieving laughs through the concrete application of metaphor. Unfortunately, his routine seems completely disconnected from the three works on display, thus providing another example of a potential for mash that didn’t mesh.
This is true even of the last piece, Kelly Mayfield’s Hallmark Dreams, for which London provided the visual design. Mayfield’s inspired idea is to have offstage voices read the most maudlin of the post-modern greeting cards (you know the kind I mean: “I’m sorry our relationship got off track…”, “You deserve better than this…”, “I’m not much of a romantic guy…”) while her dancers, some of whom are wearing angel costumes, throw little balls of cotton beneath fluorescent lights. Funny! Very funny! But then we are done with the greeting cards, and we just have dancing. And more dancing. And more dancing after that. It’s good dancing, with cool music, but at this point I’m a little unclear on the objective.
Before the show, Mayfield distributes four envelopes throughout the venue at random, and once the show begins she instructs audience members who are sitting on, or next to, the envelopes to walk onto the stage and give them to her at critical moments when she freezes during a certain dance. This adds some suspense to the show (and would have added more had it come at a later moment). She begins the dance, and freezes; #1 hustles from the audience and hands her the envelope. She opens it, and stages an elaborate death. #2 is on it like brown on rice, and soon she is reading that envelope, and reviving herself. When #3 – who happens to be VanHoozer – hands her the envelope, she reads it, and then turns on VanHoozer with a look like the one a supermodel gives a Porterhouse five minutes after she announces her retirement. She pursues VanHoozer up to his seat, sits on (or in front of) his lap – and freezes. It is the cue for #4, but #4 never comes. “Sorry, number four,” she says, and walks off.
Well, maybe #4 didn’t want to climb all the way from his comfortable seat, walk across the stage, and clamber up to where Mayfield and VanHoozer were sitting. How do I know? Because, brothers and sisters, I was #4, and I still have my envelope, as proof. In the spirit of spontaneity which the piece encourages, I have not opened it until now. I stare at the its saffron coloration; the sketched butterfly and flowers, the encircled number – and now I open it.
Desire, it says.
It was probably just as well.
Reviewed by Tim Treanor