I don’t think I’ve ever sat through a performance feeling more hopeless and confused than I did during the opening night of DADA Returns: 20th Anniversary Edition.
Essential questions that even the worst plays and other narrative works answer eventually, such as–What is this story about? When does this take place? What are the character’s motives?—were left unanswered. At particularly arcane moments, I frantically tried to make eye-contact with people in the audience, the techies behind me, and even the actors themselves in order to sense what they could be thinking. Desperate thoughts went through my head: Can someone please tell me what is going on here? Why does this play make absolutely no sense? Why are you guys just sitting there while someone is hurling gibberish at you?
I took over five pages of notes. Maybe this was like an episode of “Lost” from the later seasons when no one understood anything and people had to record it and re-watch it after they spent hours online deciphering every word with other equally confused fans. It was all in vain, though — DADA Returns makes even less sense on paper than it does on the stage.
At the play’s end, I desperately fetched the program in an attempt to find an explanation, a hint, a crumble of meaning; anything. “If you have serious ideas about life, if you make artistic discoveries and if all of the sudden your head begins to crackle with laughter, if you find all your ideas useless and ridiculous, know that it is DADA beginning to speak to you!,” said the program. I saw a girl standing alone in the lobby and asked her what she thought of the play. “I’m still digesting it,” she said plaintively with a smile. I almost cried.
DADA Returns brings to the stage Handkerchief of Clouds: A Tragedy in Fifteen Acts by Tristan Tzara, one of the founders of Dadaism. Dadaism, for those of you not in the know, was an art movement of the European avant-garde that began shortly after World War I and was meant to be a negative reaction to its horrors. The movement did not create art, but anti-art, and prized nonsense and irrationality over reason and logic. Says a reviewer from American Art News, “Dada philosophy is the sickest, most paralyzing and most destructive thing that has ever originated from the brain of man.”
This made me feel better about my confusion, but not by much.
Directed by John Spitzer, DADA Returns also features the acting talents of Dan Awkard, Domnick Lonardo, Michael Miyazaki, Chris Mrozowski, Julie Myers and Ellie Nicoll. I thought they all did great, but I’m not sure what constitutes “great” in the Dada sense—maybe great means bad—in which case they all did horribly.
But in all seriousness, I could see plainly that it was a very talented cast, and I would not hesitate to see any one of them perform in the future in something with a half-way conceivable storyline. Yet writing a review where I mention the strength of the actors in a play like this would be useless. It would be like if I was a food critic and Anthony Bourdain made me a dish out of that deadly blowfish sushi from Japan mixed with that rotten shark from Finland, and I commented on the sophistication of his filleting technique , or something like that.
Maybe I’m just a plebian and this is actually some work of raw, unbridled genius—I Googled the play and plenty has been said on its merits, so that’s probably true. I can only conclude in good faith by warning potential play-goers to not make the same mistake I did and walk in unprepared.
Do your research—are you a Tristan Tzara aficionado, or maybe curious about the movement’s history? Does highly politically reactionary, innately nihilistic and structurally unsound theatre from the French avant-garde sound like a fun Friday night to you? Tread carefully. Dada is an acquired taste, and as the movement dictates, even those who have acquired it don’t necessarily enjoy its flavor.
DADA Returns! (20th Anniversary Edition) has 6 performances, ending July 29, 2012, at GALA Theatre, 3333 14th St NW, Washington, DC.
Details and tickets
Amrita rates this 2 out of a possible 5.