Sunday, April 28, 2013

"Mass" at the Brick Theater

By Rob Hartmann

Mass, currently finishing its run at the Brick Theater in Williamsburg, is a rock musical which explores the contemporary art world and the lengths to which artists will go to make their mark.

The story, set in 2015, begins with Mary, a painter weeks away from finishing her masters degree in art, who has gone to church to escape the looming pressure of completing her thesis; the people surrounding her at mass begin to echo the self-doubting voices in her head. 

When Mary and her lover, sculptor Françoise, fail their art-school juries (the withering questioning of the faculty panel, played by the chorus all in identical yellow-framed glasses, will induce PTSD in anyone who has gone after an MFA), they hatch a plan to urinate on Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” at MOMA, to make a statement about their frustration with the art establishment. When alarms go off, Françoise bolts, leaving Mary to be detained by the police.

Mary’s gallery-worker sister, Kate, arrives to bail her out. Kate has been supporting Mary – a perpetual student – by doling out money from their parents’ estate. Tensions flare between the sisters, and Kate declines to rescue Mary (as one guesses she has had to do before.) Mary proposes to Françoise, and convinces her that they should return to Françoise’s hometown of Vancouver. There, Mary finds an ever-deepening connection to the beauty of nature, while Françoise turns to performance art – creating a song, “Punk For Beauty.”  “I am art/I am beauty/I am enough/I’m a slut for beauty.”

Mary and Françoise argue passionately about art and the role of the artist; the struggle eventually becomes physical, and Mary is accidentally injured in a way that evokes the famous confrontation between Van Gogh and Gauguin which led to Van Gogh slicing his ear. Françoise departs. 

A few years later, Kate is a successful art agent in Shanghai. Françoise has come to pitch herself and her art to Kate, who agrees to bring Françoise into her “family” of artists. (“It’s not a stable – are you a horse?” purrs the elegant Kate.) Mary arrives unexpectedly, with a proposal for a shocking performance art piece that will test the limits of her relationship with Françoise and Kate – as well as her own physical endurance.

The three lead performances are all outstanding, with each actor working in her own particular style. Moira Stone brings a fierce intensity to Mary, who seems to be tortured by the strength of her own thoughts, always on the verge of physical collapse. Stone has a particular gift of being able to make complex dialogue completely clear and natural, finding unique rhythms in the ebb and flow of the words.

Esther Crow skillfully details Françoise’s transformation from sleepy-eyed complacency, to vibrant performance artist complete with “international accent”, to a Warhol-meets-Karl Lagerfeld-meets Marina Abramovic grandeur. (One of the highlights of Act Two is Crow’s number in which she riffs improv-style off members of the audience – at this particular performance, admiring a gentleman’s velvet jacket with increasing appetite until she was practically snarling with desire.) 

Rebecca Gray Davis, as the savvy Kate, is the personified essence of art-gallery chill. In her first song, sung in fragments as she works the door at a gallery opening, she finds the knives lurking just beneath the surface of a perfectly modulated, endlessly repeated “welcome… welcome … welcome.” In her Shanghai-glam outfit in Act Two, she gets mileage out of the clank-clank of  her gold bracelets as she ponders the PR benefits of renaming Françoise to the more marketable “Pablo.”

The sleek set, designed by Lianne Arnold, cleverly draws on museum motifs – sheer white fabric stretched over frames, glossy white boxes on casters – to evoke locations from art-school workroom to museum to Shanghai penthouse. Joe Levasseur’s lighting design subtly and effectively underscores Mary’s many emotional states, most effectively when she is bathed in sunlight, almost hypnotized by the beauty of the Vancouver landscape.

Director Leah Bonvissuto keeps the action moving fluidly, focusing on the evolving relationships among the three women. Even as the work changes form – wheeling freely between realistic relationship drama to absurdist comedy to rock-show performance art – there is a sense of a director’s guiding hand, keeping the emotional narrative on track. The use of the toga-clad Greek chorus is especially effective: Melissa DeLancey, Kaitlin Emery, Amanda LaPergola, Tracy Shar and Phoebe Silva each have sharply etched moments on their own (as fellow art students, a waitress, Kate’s art-agent assistant), as well as a hilarious turn as a fluttery group of art-student interns working for Françoise. Watching them prepare a cup of tea for a visitor – each of the five taking a small part of the task – is like a small performance art piece itself. They execute Sarah Doudna’s imaginative choreography effectively.

Perhaps the most striking production element is the video design by Daniel McKleinfeld (who works under the name VJ Fuzzy Bastard – Mary’s emotional reveries take psychedelic shape in Mr. McKleinfeld’s projections, which are fascinating (while never upstaging the onstage action.)

Music director Maria Dessena ably leads the 5 piece band (Ryan Ferreira and Michael Rafalowich on guitar, Derek Davidson on bass, Sparkie Sandler on drums, with Ms. Dessena on piano and accordion) in a variety of styles from simple folk-style recitative, to full-blast rock.

The piece itself, written by Robert Honeywell (book, music and lyrics) reflects its subject matter by playing with form. The idea, asserted by Françoise in the script, that art is whatever we say it is – that the art is the act of the artist telling us where and how to look – is embodied in the way the script defies expectation of form and genre. Mr. Honeywell gives each of his characters depth and nuance: Kate could easily be a caricature of the art gallery owner as soulless art-pimp, but Mr. Honeywell finds the wit, anger and vulnerability which keeps her real. 

A standout set piece in the dialogue is when Françoise begins to tell a story of a trip to the grocery store, which somehow morphs into her account of being with the subjects of Seurat’s painting Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte and then into the sinking of the Titanic. 

Mr. Honeywell’s songs, which span a range of styles within the world of progressive art rock, find their own forms, following the dramatic flow rather than falling too neatly into conventional patterns. One of the most moving moments of the score is sung by Ms. Crow a cappella – a beautifully undulating melody. “Nature’s what I say it is… Europe’s what I say it is…”  He pushes the actors to explore all registers of their voices – Ms. Stone in particular journeys from the lowest reaches of her range, through a sharp pop-belt, to a lighter folk sound in her middle range, up to an operatic soprano register in more extreme moments.

Mass seeks to make us look anew at our relationship to art and artists – Tilda Swinton sleeping in a glass box at MOMA, David Blaine subjecting himself to quasi-torture for public view. With a mix of musical and dramatic styles, and a trio of fierce, visceral performances, the piece does exactly that.

Mass, April 13 – 30, 2013, at the Brick Theater in Williamsburg:
579 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11211, between Union Avenue and Lorimer Street. $18. for information and tickets.

Music, book and lyrics by Robert Honeywell 
Directed by Leah Bonvissuto
Music direction by Maria Dessena
Set design by Lianne Arnold
Lighting design by Joe Levasseur
Video design by Daniel McKleinfeld
Sound design by Emma Wilk
Costume design by Iracel Rivero
Choreography by Sarah Doudna
Special effects by Stephanie Cox-Williams and Melissa Roth
Assistant Dir. & Stage Management by Raffaela Vergata
Featuring: Esther Crow, Rebecca Gray Davis, Melissa DeLancey, Kaitlan Emery, Amanda LaPergola, Tracy Shar, Phoebe Silva, and Moira Stone.
And the band of: Derek Davidson, Maria Dessena, Ryan Ferreira, Michael Rafalowich and Sparkie Sandler

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