Sunday, October 24, 2010

Story Hour: A Critic's Take

THEATER REVIEW: Story Hour (11:30-12:30), Barnes & Noble at 86th St. and Lexington Ave., with special guest John Tartaglia.  Reviewed September 19.

As a critic of the arts in New York, we have come to take for granted the sort of cultural experiences that allow us to enrich our artistic appreciation, to build upon our creative understanding, to deftly refer to ourselves in the plural.  This particular performance was no exception; indeed, it is always the most “New Wave” theatre that illuminates the art form anew for us by throwing convention to the wind.  We are then confronted, as critics and as plural humans, by the question: what exactly does it mean to be “confronted” by a question? Wouldn’t you think it was weird if a question bumped up against you in the road and went “HEY! YOU!”  What if a question walked in on you while you were in the bathroom? What then?

But we digress.  We are here to talk about the performance, which as we have mentioned simply embodied the avant-garde.  For one thing, it took place at 11 a.m., which served the dual purposes of (a) placing it firmly on the “cutting edge” of new theatre and (b) steering clear of the spectators’ naptimes, although tragically, in at least one case they did not clear Potty Time.  (We do not wish to toot our own horn, but we should note that among the spectators, we personally held the distinction of being pretty much the only one who did not, at some point, spit up or cry.)  The spectators were accompanied almost universally by sippy cups, as well as by large haggard escorts who looked as though they would really have been just as happy to go home and collapse into bed. 

Compounding the occasion’s avant-garde ambience, many spectators chose to seat themselves on the floor.  They also demonstrated a totally revolutionary new mode of audience appreciation that consists basically of squirming around on the floor and pretty much ignoring the performance.  At such junctures, Mommy and Daddy would try to redirect the spectators’ attention, although we thought them frankly ineffectual.

Fortunately for the performer, renowned puppeteer John Tartaglia, there was a core group of about eight or ten delighted wiggly patrons who wiggled right up there onstage with him and his puppet and stayed there, rapt.  You just don’t get this sort of atmosphere at Lincoln Center, where when you wiggle up onstage nobody takes it as a compliment.  (Should you become known as a repeat wiggler, Lincoln Center will resort to severe measures, namely, naming a building after you.)*

While Mr. Tartaglia was the supposed star of the show, it is our opinion that he was quite frankly upstaged by his hand puppet co-star, a young up-and-coming fish named “Dorsal”** who did not give his last name.  (As a person who is theatrically In the Know, we can only assume this is the result of an attempt on the part of his management to “brand” him for mass appeal, the way they did with “Lady Gaga” and “Galileo.”)  He was also accompanied by page-turner Julio, whom we felt turned pages with great √©lan.

The book Mr. Tartaglia read was I’m The Biggest Thing in the Ocean, which tells the story of individualistic young architect Howard Roark, who refuses to compromise his artistic vision even when the world threatens to destroy him.  No, wait, that’s Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.  Actually, The Biggest Thing in the Ocean is the story of a happy blue squid who is the biggest thing in the ocean – bigger than the shrimp, the octopus, SpongeBob SquarePants, etc. – when suddenly (and we personally did NOT see this coming) he is swallowed by a whale, whereupon he remarks, ever cheery, “I’m the biggest thing in this whale.”  Personally, we felt that what this plot lacked in substance, it made up in promoting the theme of remaining annoying in death.  

Mr. Tartaglia, however, had a different take on this oeuvre (French for “squid”) when we spoke with him after the show.

“I feel bad,” he said.  “I didn’t realize a character, um, DIES at the end.”

Hadn’t he read the material before arriving? He explained sheepishly that he had literally just gotten off his plane.  As a Frequent Flyer ourselves, we’re inclined to give him a break.  Planes are NOT conducive to reading, which is the only possible explanation for SkyMall, the magazine that can actually convince your pathetic plane-addled brain that you desperately need, say, a rectal alarm clock.

At any rate, we left the performance happy and fulfilled, and we look forward to its talented stars’ next venture, whatever that may be.  Not that anyone asked us, but if Mr. Tartaglia’s management will be pleased to accept our suggestion, we would like to put in our vote for a stage Fountainhead, starring “Dorsal” as Howard Roark.

* This is no joke.  Lincoln Center is obsessed with this practice.  You New York theatregoers know what I'm talking about.  They’ll take any excuse.  Everything there is named after somebody, as in, “The Norbert V. and Edna M. Thrombosis Automatic Paper Towel Dispenser (Wave Hands in Front of Flashing Light).”  Seriously now, these people can’t all be somebody.  

** Appearing through the courtesy of Actors’ Equity Association.

©2010, Nicola McEldowney

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