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Open: 08/25/10- Close: 09/04/10 One Arm And A Leg
Reviewed for By: Heather Violanti

If you want to glimpse theatre’s future, go see One Arm and a Leg, the brilliant new multi-disciplinary piece by fledging company PegLeg Productions.  Conceived and directed by promising director Calla Videt, it is a startlingly visceral exploration of love, identity, and dislocation.  Videt and her company draw their inspiration from a surreal short story by Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata, in which a woman literally gives her arm to a man…and yet the two never quite connect.

Oddly, the show begins predictably, almost smugly.  Entering the theatre, you’re greeted by the cast, receiving-line style.  They shake your hand, ask you how you’re doing, even hug you.  This is not the status quo for most theatre, to be sure, but it’s a familiar convention of the unconventional, harkening back to the glory day of the Living Theatre (And woe betide the audience member who might ignore the actors.  When I rushed to my seat, diminutive actor Aya Tucker chased me down, and asked me my name). 

Then the lights dim, and the pointedly awkward interaction stops.  This hushed, clear shift to “performance mode” is safe and familiar—but what follows is not.  Videt and her company reimagine the elements of the avant garde in their own, exciting terms—and with flashes of humor.   Imagine a warmer, more kinetic Robert Wilson, mixed liberally with dashes of Merce Cunningham, Complicite, and everything in between.  Eerily beautiful images emerge and are often repeated in different variations:  men and women stand apart, reaching for each other;  a young woman skulks across the stage with a glowing prosthetic arm; a man with a battered red umbrella battles the elements, three arms suddenly insinuate themselves into coats on a garment rack, making the garments come to life.

Every member of the ensemble displays an incredible command of acting and movement (some are trained dancers). The choreography by Videt, Ricky Kuperman, and Jeff Kuperman sublimely evokes a weird, poignant story of love and dislocation.   The surreal central motif—the young woman who gives her arm to a lonely man—is refracted through several different encounters.  A businessman meets a Japanese woman on a plane while reading Kawabata and musing on his lost love; another lonely businessman encounters an armless woman after a comic star turn at a karaoke bar.  This woman, in turn, works at a radio station devoted to weather updates, and her broadcasts serve as a vocal bridge from moment to moment.  Everything converges to form an elusive, yet ultimately moving, meditation on falling in love and failing to connect.

Scenic designer Melissa Goldman creates a strange and surreal world with only the simplest of objects—garment racks, wheeled screens, chairs.  Lighting designer Mary Ellen Stebbins makes ingenious use of environmental lighting, from the booklight held over the actors to evoke a cramped airplane cabin, to the flashlight held behind a folding screen to create the sinister realm of Tokyo’s nightlife.  Lights also pop up in unexpected places—inside a picture frame, in an umbrella, within the fingers of a prosthetic arm, and so on.

One Arm and A Leg is one of the most exciting theater pieces I have seen this year, and I look forward to seeing more work from this talented young company.   

UPDATE (9/4/10)

Following the run of Part 1 of One Arm and A Leg at Theatre for a New City, Parts 1 and 2 were presented as part of the Summer Sublet Series at HERE.  Director Calla Videt and her company expertly adapted to the new playing space, which was broader across though not as deep.   Given the different technical capabilities at HERE, a an additional visual element was added--Trevor Martin's video projections.  These videos amplified the piece's sense of poetic dislocation--featuring images of hands, arms, Japanese script, airports, and live feeds of the cast members.    The videos were projected on billowing white cloth, which was pulled on and off the stage like a curtained sleeve by a woman dressed in a long white gown (a clever echo of the "arm" motif).

Part 2, not shown at Theatre for a New City, expands on the themes of the first part while adding a new motif--the leg.  Part 1 focused on the surreal tale of a woman who gives her arm to a man--a bittersweet romance echoed in the lives of several couples.  In Part 2, a young veteran from Afghanistan copes with the loss of his leg while one of the couples from Part 1 threaten to split apart.  

In general, Part 2 doesn't match the hypnotic power of Part 1, and  feels less polished, though it is nevertheless compelling.  The lengthy passages of dialogue stand in sharp contrast to the sparse, elegant language of its first part--and despite their wordiness, are less revealing  As before, there are startingly beautiful images--as when the cast crawls and dances across a darkened stage, illuminated only by dim blue light, and a man dances a duet with his reflection.   The new story--the veteran who's life has changed forevever--adds a poignant, contemporary dimension to the piece, but its full potential needs to more explored.

Still, in sum One Arm and A Leg is a fascinating, viscerally brilliant piece, and I look forward to PegLeg's future work.








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