Inspired by Antonio Vega’s own experience as an immigrant in New York City, The Duchamp Syndrome is an odd but gently endearing play. Produced in collaboration with Por Piedad Teatro, it was originally performed in Spanish in Mexico City in January, an English-language version was featured at Singapore’s 2015 M-1, and this is its US première. This is not the immigrant experience written for Americans and there’s been no attempt to universalize the personal story of Juan. He dreams of being stand-up comic and these dreams are presented in a rather unique fashion, even though many of the play’s wider themes – aspiration, isolation, prejudice, and the longing and concern for loved ones “back home” – are familiar.
The rather dismal nature of Juan’s new home is evoked as we enter the Flea’s black box theatre to semi-surreal sounds of dripping, metallic clanks. On stage are an intriguing collection of objects: a microphone stand, a desk and chair, a “caution: wet floor” sign, and a man (Omen Sade) dressed in a black coverall and balaclava, silently fishing in a water cooler, labelled with a No Fishing sign. Without any lighting change, a second man in a beige coverall (Antonio Vega) enters from the foyer, his back-turned, quietly mopping his way onstage. (It is a telling reflection on the invisibility of such maintenance figures that most of the audience continued their chat before a lighting change clearly identified him as the performer.) At this point Vega removes the caution sign, uncovering a tiny microphone stand; he appears to “test” the full size mic before revealing that is is, in fact, a torch, which he shines on the tiny microphone, creating a spot-light. He and Sade then manipulate a puppet to smoke and recite “The New Colossus” while dressed as the Statue of Liberty. And so begins a series of disjointed, but somehow interconnected narratives, narrated and embodied by Vega as Juan, Sade as “his shadow,” and multiple tiny—and ever tinier—puppets.
Tapes sent between Juan and his mother provide the primary narrative thread. Through the tapes and Juan’s monologues to the audience we learn that he plans to propose to a certain Maria, that he works as a janitor and security guard, that he has lied to his blind and fervently religious mother about achieving fame as a comedian in New York, and that his father played guitar. Gradually too, we learn that he blames himself for a tragic accident as a child. Intercepting this is his discovery of a foul-mouthed cockroach who also performs stand-up, but of a quite different style than Juan’s rather hammy, charmingly innocent clichés evoking, for instance, the non-existence of a “nice New Yorker.” (It must be said that Vega’s apology to his mother for his “intense, violent, dirty plays” printed in the program set me up for a much fouler Tony Roach).
Other vignettes are brought to life through Vega’s beautiful puppets, skilfully manipulated by him and Sade. Vega’s work with puppets is a remarkable study in scale. At one point he narrates and produces ever smaller versions of himself, Matryoshka style, but somehow more delicate and moving. While massive spectacular puppets dominate on Broadway, it is wonderful to see Vega and Sade’s minute work with these diminutive puppets. They keep the expressive movement of the puppets in beautiful proportion. The smallness focuses the attention of the audience too and seems to speak to the vulnerability of human existence. Although in telling the side-story of two shrinking friends, Juan insists, “when I talk about people getting smaller, it is not a metaphor,” we retain the sense that this exploration of smallness carries profound meaning. Indeed, it is one of several elements of the play that feel rich in metaphorical meaning. The play is rich too in references from the esoteric (the titular Duchamp) to the more middle-brow (American Beauty). This is by no means a “tight” 90 minutes and has none of the snappiness that might aid Juan in his stand-up routine (the woman next to me checked her watch with some frequency, even while she laughed warmly at other moments). Vega nonetheless exhibits his own enthusiastic charm and is ably supported by the physically adept Sade (who manages to be expressive despite his silent role and restrictive costume).
The Duchamp Syndrome is a quirky, contemplative comedy, underpinned with some sadness; Vega has created a truly personal story here and he stages it with sincere warmth, originality and artistry.