When a movie director renounces his creative control over a film, the Directors Guild of America attributes authorship to a fictional Alan Smithee. In Alan Smithee Directed This Play: Triple Feature,Big Dance Theater doesn’t pass the buck for what happens on stage. Instead, Annie B-Parson and Paul Lazar, the company’s co-founders and directors of this devised work, take a deliberate step away from imposing any meaning. What they offer in its place is a bracing reflection on frustrated desire.
Longing pervades the whole of this piece, from its elongated choreography to its heteroclite costuming, evoking different historical moments at once. As a theme, it practically drips from the show’s source material (the “triple feature” of the title): the dramas Terms of Endearment (starring Shirley MacLaine and Deborah Winger), Doctor Zhivago (with Omar Sherif and Julie Christie) and, in a more anxious sense, the French thriller Le Cercle rouge (starring a young Alan Delon and best known for its silent jewel heist scene).
As a construct for Big Dance Theater’s experiment, longing is almost as palpable in the choice – surprising for a work devised from three film scripts – to avoid referencing those movies at all. Only Le Cercle rouge lends a sustained excerpt, in the form of three brief sequences that are of little visual interest but build suspense in the original. If this seems counterintuitive, the reason for this absence gradually suggests itself: it would be superfluous to visually quote these culturally loaded, late 20th century movies because it is much more interesting to watch Big Dance Theater enact them in their way.
They do this with a fullness of presence created by Parson’s taut choreography, which sends the actors striding in angled formations across the bare stage of BAM’s Harvey Theater, to point a gun, or answer a phone or smoke a cigarette, gestures all made familiar – and clichéd – by Hollywood. It also emanates from the clipped, fragmented dialogues, some of which are instantly recognizable, even when (in the case of Terms of Endearment) the lines are taken from the books on which the films were based. This grammar of stock cinematic gestures and archly dramatic dialogue repeats in rapidly changing contexts as the actors appear and reappear in new combinations of thick fur coats, long floral-print dresses and military khakis, now enacting Larissa’s attempted assassination of Komarovsky, now Emma’s phoned plea to Aurora for money for her third pregnancy. Revolutionary Russia and American suburbia collide, overlap and illuminate each other from an ever shrinking distance.
Apposing dialogue, dance and real-time video against a minimal set of folding plastic chairs and a screen of vertical window blinds, Alan Smithee Directed This Play could count among its authors Pina Bausch and The Wooster Group. For its development, the show also relied on another essential creator of contemporary theater: the deep pockets of European arts funding, with an invitation to “Subsistances à Lyon,” a residency program for new performance languages, in France, where this piece premiered in March 2014.
Little contextualization is needed, however, for recognizing the creative energy of Parson, who choreographed David Byrne’s wildly successful musical, Here Lies Love (now in its third season at the Public Theater – and coming to London next week) and Lazar, whose acting and directing credits include work with The Wooster Group, Young Jean Lee and Richard Maxwell. The excellent cast also is beyond compare, led by the steely muscularity of Elizabeth DeMent and the vocal versatility of Cynthia Hopkins.
With this latest addition to its multi-media oeuvre, Big Dance Theater performs a heist of its own, to which the muted reference to Le Cercle rouge is perhaps a tip of the hat. The promise of a real triple feature proves illusive: what is offered is a deconstruction of the representational codes of theater and film, which, while alluring, leaves only a fleeting imitation of love, or friendship or desire, never the real thing. How the fulfillment of these emotions is constantly thwarted in real life, is explored in these films. How their language of longing is expressed and diffused into our own cultural codes is the fascinating subject of this “Alan Smithee.”