Double Edge Theatre might be the most exciting theater group you’ve never heard of – mostly because they live and work not in a cultural hub, but on a small farm in western Massachusetts. Double Edge’s The Grand Parade blends the mundane and the monumental into an audacious Technicolor journey through 100 years of American history, seen through the eyes of their inspired ensemble and designers.
The show thrives on the juxtaposition of 20th century events both uplifting and horrifying with the cultural movements that accompanied them. According to artistic director Stacy Klein, the entire piece is inspired by the painting of Marc Chagall, whose work showcases such stark, dreamlike images as “a bride flies over a ravaged village” and “the rooster and cow play their cellos [as] masses of people flee or dance”. This aesthetic leaps off the stage as the ensemble explores the cauldron of the 20th century through mixed media and enthusiastic pantomime, dance, and acrobatics.
The show begins and ends in a striking, yet bewildering fashion, as the ensemble mills about the stage muttering in multiple languages and chanting atonal harmonies. A chicken-headed man paces the floor, while acrobats spin and flutter through artfully hung draperies. Chagall’s themes brought to life provide a visually striking tableau, but the aesthetic seems pointless without the narrative momentum promised by the show’s title Parade. After a few minutes, the players’ extended wandering and chanting risks alienating the audience before any method to their madness is revealed.
After the initial stumbling, the historical circus comes into sharper focus as the show begins to lurch forward. Turn of the century fashions and recordings offer much needed context, fleshing out the fitful advances of the early 1900’s. The initial action crescendos to a fever pitch as the chronology nears World War I. Suddenly, what began as a fun clown act pivots to a surprisingly affecting ballet of carnage. The ensemble flails about the stage under a barrage of light and sound, utilizing cloth dummies to great effect as bodies left in the wake of falling bombs. A performer’s mask of giddy joy from just minutes earlier becomes a rictus of terror as he frantically flees to no avail.
Throughout the hour’s performance, the production follows an often ingenious parade of historical snapshots, as the audience hurtles forward through time. In each scene, the performers frame political and economic flashpoints with dance fads, TV shows, music clips, and other cultural artifacts. Desperate scenes from the Great Depression segue directly into the whimsical antics of a spot-on Groucho Marx impersonation.
Audio clips from impassioned Civil Rights speeches compete with a giddy rendition of “The Twist” by the smiling cast. Even the fall of the Berlin Wall is staged with a soaring backing track provided by U2 and looped recordings of Reagan’s exhortations to Mikhail Gorbachev. Once the production reaches the close of the 20th century, the actors resume their initial hazy wandering, which seems more appropriate in hindsight as a dreamlike coda than the ill-fated opening scene.
The Grand Parade (of the 20th Century)
Closes February 10, 2013
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
1 hour without intermission
Tickets: Limited standing room: $30
Saturday and Sunday
The captivating visuals result from a collective effort by projection designer Brian Fairley, puppet designer Carroll Durand, lighting designer Lucrecia Briceno, costumer Amanda Miller, and the ensemble. Together, they have festooned the stage with metal cages, mannequins, drapes, pools of light, and meticulous period details. The resulting visual is much like a group of excited children playing around in their grandfather’s cluttered attic, recreating history from piles of old clothes, vintage records, and yellowed newspapers.
When the show is firing on all cylinders, it very nearly captures the zeitgeist of entire decades with six performers and a shoestring band. At its least, it is a lovely if aimless spectacle of light and sound. On a deeper level, as the performers Twist their way through MLK’s assassination, the production reminds us how frequently culture is used as a benchmark for collective memory. Beyond a few disorienting rough patches, there lies a rich, audacious vision of American history that should dazzle theatergoers from any generation.
The Grand Parade (of the 20th Century) . Conceived, Designed, Directed by Stacy Klein . Music Composed by Alexander Bakshi . Featuring: Adam Bright, Hayley Brown, Milena Dabova, Jeremy Louise Eaton, Matthew Glassman, Carlos Uriona, Carroll Durand and Kieran Smyth. Musicians: Brian Fairley, John Peitso, Walken Schweigert and Amanda Miller. Chorus members from Georgetown University include Emma Clark, Vivian Cook and Allie Villarreal. Production: Sound & Projection Designer Brian Fairley, Wood Designer Jeff Bird, Costumiere Amanda Miller, Lighting Designer Lucrecia Briceno, Vocal and Music Director Lyudmila Bakshi, Mask Designer Beckie Kravetz, Puppet Designers Carroll Durand and Sarah Cormier and Dramaturg Morgan Jenness. Produced by Double Edge Theater . Presented by Arena Stage. Reviewed by Ben Demers.