Saturday, July 19, 2008

Dada Delight at Capital Fringe

A wee bit more Capital Fringe Festival blogging. Tonight I saw Manifesto! -- a production of Happenstance Theater -- at the Source on 14th Street. Verdict? Terrific.

The hour-long piece is a (very) playful homage to the Dadaist movement -- which has enjoyed a bit of a critical renaissance in the past few years. The big exposure came from a much-ballyhooed 2006 retrospective that toured major museums in Washington, New York and Paris. But there's also been a number of scholarly reexaminations of the phenomenon -- including The Dada Reader: A Critical Anthology (University of Chicago Press) and a slew of books from MIT Press that expand the scope of criticism on the movement to its manifestations in Eastern Europe and the Netherlands and to marginalized figures such as Francis Picabia.

So what does Happenstance do with Dada? Well, first, and best, they foreground the physical comedy of Dadaist performance -- the frenetic clowning, the farts, and the high-pitched exotic nonsense of it all. They remind the audience, even at a knowing remove, that Dada was meant to insult and offend and even physically repel those who were not in on its nihilistic joking.

Second, the company's mash-up of various texts reads Dada back into its particular milieu of contested avant-gardism. Sure, Dada was a revolt against the nationalism, capitalism and imperialism that created the First World War. But it was also a movement that bloodied the nose of other competing movements -- especially other artistic "isms" that included the Futurism spearheaded by Filippo Tomasso Marinetti, which was co-opted and corroded by its adherents' preening, vulgar delight in war and destruction. It's no accident that Happenstance's production literally kills off and chalk marks the body of a Futurist, or that it presents capitalism and communism in a sado-masochistic tango that tickles, slaps and collapses in on itself.

The performances by Mark Jaster, Sabrina Mandell and Scott Burgess (as the clowns who staff a "Cabaret Révolte"), Maia DeSanti (the cabaret's hostess) and by Taffety Punk Theatre Company's Lise Bruneau and Marcus Kyd (who embody any number of the "isms" at war in the piece) are a winning blend of craft and playful anarchy. It's a rare thing to see texts which are largely the province of art historians and literary critics brought to life and brought to laughter. Happenstance is to be congratulated for doing so.

There are three more performances of Manifesto! -- Sunday, July 20, Wednesday, July 23 and Saturday, July 26. Tickets are here.

The cover of Theo van Doesburgs' 1923 brochure Wat is Dada is in the public domain.

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