Monday, March 29, 2010

From Meyerhold to Cirque Mechanics' "Birdhouse Factory"

[post 092]

This post was supposed to be almost as easy as my last one. Surely I could knock it off in an hour or two. I'd caught Birdhouse Factory a while back in Newark, found it more than a little interesting, figured I'd write a paragraph or two of observations, throw in some pics and a promo video and be done with it.

As usual, one thing led to another, and I started making all these links between this and that — this being Cirque Mechanics and that being Russian constructivism, biomechanics, and eccentric acting — and before long I was spending days trying to connect all these dots. At this rate I'll never get those other ten chapters of my Clowns book up here before I have to return to my other lives two months from now, much less keep up with Pat Cashin! Oh well, you can't fight your own DNA, can ya? But no, je ne regrette rien; some good stuff here.

Acrobatics + Machines + Theatre + Circus = ??

Cast of characters:
• "Birdhouse Factory," cirque nouveau production by the Las Vegas-based group Cirque Mechanics. The show had its premiere at San Francisco's Circus Center in December, 2004 and has been touring North America pretty extensively ever since.

The Russian constructivist art movement of the 1920s, and specifically the work of the Russian director, Vsevolod Meyerhold, whose (anti-Stanislavsky) productions and "biomechanical" movement for actors borrowed a lot from commedia, circus, and the variety stage. Meyerhold was the darling of the avant-garde in the early days of the Russian Revolution, but ended up being executed by Stalin for not towing the party line.

The Story:
The creators of Birdhouse Factory
are performers with experience with Cirque du Soleil, Pickle Family Circus, and even the Moscow Circus, and its program lists such influences as "the Detroit industrial murals of Diego Rivera, the outrageous illustrations of cartoonist Rube Goldberg, and the gentle political slapstick of Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times." Their work aims to make connections between the functionality of industrial machinery and the pure physics of circus acrobatics. Founder Chris Lashua explains that "we want to see every gear, every cog, every relationship between chain and sprocket, every gear ratio and mix with people flipping and doing acrobatics in the air and utilizing the machines or the factory setting."

In a landmark 1922 constructivist production, Meyerhold took Fernand Crommelynck's dark bedroom farce, The Magnanimous Cuckold, and physicalized the abstract concept of "farce machinery" with a set that was part machine, part jungle gym, and performed upon by actors trained in what he called "biomechanical" movement.

Here's a performance photo showing Lyubov Popova's original set in action:

And a poster for the production...

Before you knew it, constructivist artists were in demand as theatre set designers. Here's Alexander Vesin's set for Alexander Tairov's 1924 production of The Man who was Thursday.

Fast-forward 80+ years:

In his book The Theatre of Meyerhold: Revolution on the Modern Stage, Edward Braun explained that Popova's set functioned both as a dynamic playground for the actors and scenery for the storyline:

"At his invitation Popova joined the teaching staff of the Theatre Workshop and agreed to build a construction for
The Magnanimous Cuckold. It consisted of the frames of conventional theatre flats and platforms joined by steps, chutes, and catwalks; there were two wheels, a large disc bearing the letters 'CR-ML-NCK', and vestigial windmill sails, which all revolved at varying speeds as a kinetic accompaniment to the fluctuating passions of the characters. Blank panels hinged to the framework served as doors and windows. As Rudnitsky says, the aim was simply 'to organize scenic space in the way most convenient for the actors, to create for them a 'working area.'

But despite the skeletal austerity, the grimy damp-stained brickwork of the exposed back wall, and the absence of wings to hide either stage-crew or cast, Popoya's contraption evoked inevitable associations with the windmill in which the play was supposed to be set, suggesting now a bedroom, now a balcony, now the grinding mechanism, now a chute for the discharging of the sacks of flour. Only in the isolated moments when it enhanced the synchronized movements of the complete ensemble did it work simply as a functional machine. In the theatre, whose whole allure depends on the associative power of the imagination, every venture by the Constructivists led to an unavoidable compromise of their utilitarian dogma and each time demonstrated the inherent contradiction in the term T
heatrical Constructivism."

Alas, there's no film record of Meyerhold's production, but here are two promo videos of Birdhouse Factory that provide glimpses of this interaction between set and performer.

The plot, such as it is, is set in a gloomy, gray factory run by an unfeeling boss. That begins to change when a stray bird gets loose inside, and by the second act the factory has been transformed into a joyous playground. The setting gives free rein to all kinds of experimentation mixing machines and acrobatics. The message, according to Lashua, has to do with finding the spirit of joy:

"Even though it takes place in a 1940s setting, Birdhouse Factory speaks to audiences of the twenty-first century. There’s a timeliness to what we’re doing in the sense that here are people that are lined up to work in a factory, and it’s the harsh kind of working environment. And as a result of things that happen in that place, people will find the spirit or the joy in what they’re doing, and it’s as important a message today as any other time.”

In some cases the circus acts and the factory environment really work together well, while with others it's pretty much a case of traditional circus acts being performed against a factory background. The trampoline act, which you can see glimpses of in the first video, above, makes brilliant use of a wall at the back of the tramp in the shape of a stack of boxes. The act becomes about scaling the wall and strutting atop the boxes. The ground below (trampoline bed) exists only as a launching pad. The boxes not only multiply the number of tricks possible, they add dynamic possibilities for attitude and posturing and interaction, all of which the performers make the most of. It's one of those acts that you just don't want to end.

Update (4-9-10): Saw Cirque du Soleil's Ovo last night, and its crowd-rousing finale is a trampoline and tumbling act where three tramp beds are used to help propel the acrobats up a rock climbing wall.

But even when Birdhouse Factory really isn't working 100% as theatre, it's damn good circus simply because of the caliber, presentation, and originality of the individual acts.

But I know what you're saying: this is a physical comedy blog; what does any of this have to do with comedy? A lot, as it turns out. The main character in the piece is a worker-clown, played very nicely by Jesse Dryden, who by the second act has taken over as factory boss and is instrumental in the transformation of the workplace. The new-found joy and exuberance herald the triumph of the clown spirit, as the downtrodden, slumping workers rediscover their bodies and take flight.

Dryden also does a sweet audience participation piece involving a very old radio that mostly emits static — unless you're touching it, in which case it plays "It's Only a Paper Moon." He brings a woman up to dance with him but of course as soon as his hand loses contact with the radio, the static takes over, end of dance. So he brings her significant other up on stage as well and gets him to keep his hand on the radio. Predictably, the guy sabotages their dance by removing his hand and Dryden is forced to be the radio holder while the couple get to dance romantically without him. As a final twist, this being 2010 even if the radio's from 1930, Dryden dances with the man while the woman holds the radio. I have a real problem with clowns who use audience participation to make fun of spectators instead of making fun of themselves, but this was just the opposite. Bravo!

My favorite piece of physical comedy had to be a tightly-choreographed tango performed atop a giant industrial spool. I'm not sure who the performers were and I can't find any video, but it was full of character and some sharp partner acrobatic moves. The flavor was combative, somewhere between tango and apache dance, with many delicious moments.

Movement & Choreography
Back in the heady days of the Russian Revolution, choreographers were drawing inspiration from the industrial age for human movement. One such project was the Factory of the Eccentric Actor, whose 1921 manifesto begins "Wear Clown Plants and be Saved." Meyerhold introduced a system of "biomechanical" training for actors, meant to harness the findings of Taylorism as to efficient physical movement, though in reality most of the biomechanical exercises were directly derived from the physical comedy tradition.

Birdhouse choreographer and co-director Aloysia Gavre took much of the show's body language straight from Rivera’s industrial paintings—clear body positions, sharp angles, and deep motion. But the twist is including the “kookiness” of moves from Chaplin’s world. “It’s that juxtaposition of everything,” Gavre says. “It’s not dance choreography, it’s movement choreography.” (interview with Jennifer Pencek)

More on the Factory of the Eccentric Actor and on biomechanics in two future posts, but meanwhile some useful links:
Meyerhold Museum
Video documentaries about Meyerhold and the Russian Avant-Garde by Michael Craig
Cirque Mechanics website
Chris Lashua interview with Jennifer Pencek
NY Times review of Birdhouse Factory

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