Jerzy Grotowski, whose concept of "poor theater" encouraged legions of warehouse artist wannabes, once pointed out that most theater people don't have a clear idea of what theater is other than an opportunity for actors to fling themselves about, indulging their narcissistic tendencies. Grotowski ended up in California caressing tree trunks in the name of performance, which goes to show just how far a good notion can be pushed. But his spirit of challenging the norm lives on in Vicki Weathersby's production of The Wild Party at artist David Addickes' studio warehouse. Though she doesn't have anyone making love to elms, Weathersby has tackled a number of theatrical obstacles: a space with poor acoustics, a decidedly young gaggle of actors and a script that has more in common with a painting than it does a play. Considering the odds working against her, it's something of a triumph that The Wild Party turns out to be both a stylishly concise and amusing bit of theater.
The prologue to the play includes wandering through Addickes' Rushmore scale presidential busts and a web of TV sets designed by Darin Palmer, after which playgoers find their way up to the performance area on the second story. Dark parachutes canopy the stage space, with folding chairs casually arranged on three sides. A live jazz band plays while actors, made up in whiteface and wearing a range of fashionable underwear and pajamas, mill around with the audience. The setting features a panoramic view of the city -- and a stifling wave of heat. Despite the large windows, the second floor space quickly becomes a sweatbox. As the actors perspire through their makeup, the audience ambitiously fans themselves. Amidst all this, The Wild Party organically begins, as if the actors decided to start the real party after tiring of the audience's company.
A narrative poem written over the summer of 1926 by the New Yorker's first managing editor, The Wild Party tells a jazz age story of a socialite named Queenie and her entourage of shallow, well-dressed friends. Working in syncopated, rhymed couplets, author Joseph March drew the party in short scenes, with moments of flashback thrown in to elucidate the relationship between Queenie and her no-good man, Burrs. Rich, decadent characters such as these often lead to stories about love and lust, the unrequited and thwarted variety being among the most common. Queenie's variety of love is thwarted: she falls for her best friend Kate's man, Mr. Black, the moment she meets him. It doesn't hurt that Kate makes a beeline for Queenie's Burrs, or that Queenie's looking for a way out of a bad deal. Burrs, played by Alexander Marchand, is a cowardly beast, not above treating women roughly. His outfit -- a painted clown face and a derby with droopy sunflowers -- underlines his sorry state.
Though most of the story takes shape in dialogue, commentary is provided by a narrator, wonderfully played by Jeremy Johnson. While he restricts most of his movement to the pillars that surround the stage, Johnson occasionally makes contact with an audience member, which can be a frightful experience, given his shock-treatment coiffure (stolen from Edward Scissorhands) and monocled gaze. Also weaving through the audience is Weathersby, who serves as Queenie 2, the internal dialogue version of the Queenie played by Anna Krejci. Thanks in part to careful costuming, the doubling device works: both Queenies wear long black gowns and glamorous footwear, both are platinum blonds with a world-weary bitterness. But where Krejci is hard-bitten, Weathersby is softly cynical, and the combination provides a wryness that helps the story to work.
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Part of doing poor theater means neither the audience nor the performers are allowed to forget about their compromised environment, whether climate, uncomfortable chairs or unflattering lighting. On opening night, several trains sounded their whistles, making it impossible to hear, much less interpret, what was going on. With a cheerful nonchalance, each time a train approached an actor would announce, "Train break!" The band would then play a jazzy number, and the actors would dance their way through the interruption. Players offered to bring beers to audience members during the train breaks, and even asked, "I'm your favorite, aren't I?" Once the train had passed, the story was picked up smoothly.
The unrestricted nature of a production such as The Wild Party challenges notions of theater etiquette, and for some audience members, what constituted a proper level of interaction proved confusing. When they turned to their neighbors to ask for clarification, they were descended upon by Weathersby, who proclaimed them "impolite" and shushed them demonstrably.
Like most celebrations, The Wild Party grows long in the tooth near the end, and it's difficult to care whether or not Queenie and Mr. Black will consummate their lust without the interference of Burrs; these are not characters for whom one develops an affinity. Still, there is some clever direction in the final scenes, in which Queenie's bed is rolled center stage and Burrs tries to pounce the lovers, but the parody is spent. The Wild Party fits the definition of poor theater in the sense that costumes seem to have come from thrift stores and actors' closets, the scenery appears thrown together and the climate is barely tolerable, but there is also a palette of indulgence that works. Marking the first production of Weathersby's new theatrical troupe, Shirk Workers Union, this play deserves at least a genteel round of applause for presenting March's droll poetry in a way that's both accessible and riotously naughty.
The Wild Party plays through August 17 at 2500 Summer Street, 788-0671.
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