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Fabulously Dismantled

In Bobbi Jene Smith’s “Broken Theater,” 12 performers play artists unmoored and unraveling in a dark theater. The New York premiere of this work at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre last Saturday evening, as part of the La MaMa Moves! Dance Festival in association with American Modern Opera Company (AMOC), immersed the audience in a raucous dance theater work that reckoned with temporal and terminal themes. Layers of text, live music, and movement, built to an intensity that eventually stripped the production bare, exposing the trembling gap between artifice and reality.

Performance

Bobbi Jean Smith's “Broken Theater”

Place

Ellen Stewart Theatre, La MaMa, New York, NY, April 22, 2023

Words

Candice Thompson

Stephanie Troyak, Yiannis Logothetis, Mouna Soualem, Jesse Kovarsky in Bobbi Jean Smith's “Broken Theater.” Photograph by Maria Baranova

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The deep black box theater is set with simple furniture, the perimeter lined with wardrobe choices on a rack and a large selection of shoes. As the audience filters in, some performers are already onstage. Violinst Keir GoGwilt and cellist Coleman Itzkoff play cards at a table set stage right while Julia Eichten, who plays Judy the stage manager, observes the room from a desk off stage left. Smith perches on a downstage bench, nearly out of sight, jotting notes into a large notebook. When Jonathan Frederickson walks onstage fiddling with a coffee cup, somehow the audience knows to quiet down even though the house lights remain on. He moves through a series of anxious tasks: adjusting himself and the spare furniture with sharp motions; rolling two crab apples in his hand right in front of his pelvis, suggestive of his testicles; asking the audience to throw an apple at him and then a few minutes later, quiz him on a list of prime numbers. The scene is random and idiosyncratic—reminiscent of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, where Frederickson also dances—and it is somehow unsurprising when Smith enters and the two appear to have a secret gestural language that turns steamy and aggressive. They are the father and mother of “Broken Theater,” and also seem to be co-directing this show within a show.

Strings and the sound of Smith’s yelling bring the rest of the artists onstage. They run forward to dance, pushing each other out of the way, while Frederickson and Or Schraiber shout directions from a board of post-it notes upstage. The choreography is a struggle, the dancers fighting against their own bodies and bumping into one another as Mikael Darmanie’s piano joins in. Duets re-form into new partnerships and trios. Chairs are placed in a circle and used as a launching pad for rushing into the center. Bodies tangle; beautiful sculptural moments emerge. They return to their seats, quiet and catching their breath, but only for a moment before they drive back into the center with more force than before. Smith tells everyone to take five.

Bobbi Jene Smith, Or Schraiber and Yiannis Logothetis in Bobbi Jean Smith's “Broken Theater.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

The incredible prowess of the cast is immediately felt. These are highly articulate dancers that can speak and act—and in the case of the breathtaking Vinson Fraley, sing too—and musicians that are comfortable getting physical. Throughout the show, their presence is often just as powerful when lingering in a corner, talking in an open dressing room far upstage, or hanging from a balcony to watch a scene along with us as it is when they are throwing their weight around, playing in all ways with virtuosity.

To bring such a group together for such a multidisciplinary work is the wheelhouse of AMOC. Founded in 2017, this collective of well-respected artists from the worlds of classical music, opera, dance, and theater has been steadily gaining in commissions and acclaim. Their process is highly collaborative and seems to prize experimental works where the artists can stretch their practice. Eichten, GoGwilt, Schraiber, and Smith are among the founding members.

Bobbi Jene Smith in “Broken Theater..” Photograph by Steven Pisano

Smith welcomes us to La MaMa in a speech that gets interrupted and restarted, explaining that they are constantly in process and adding. She is told it is time to audition for the role of mother. Mimicking the start-stop rhythm of the rehearsal process, few scenes are allowed to fully resolve, and the performers often repeat sections to respond to the constant feedback they are receiving. Zack Winokur’s dramaturgy makes room for both scripted and unscripted moments.

Of the several vignettes that stood out for their humor or poignancy or both, Smith’s audition was one of them. The disembodied voice of the god mic calls out a ridiculous series of challenges testing her bouncing rhythms (change it up, the baby is still crying), instincts and reactions (your kid is getting a tattoo, your toddler is approaching a busy street), as well as her ability to feed the baby (please turn around and cover yourself) and fall while protecting the baby (faster, faster, faster, and now in slow motion). Her grappling and striving worked on two levels, showing her quick twitch emotional and physical range as a performer while also conveying a deeper truth about the superhuman demands of motherhood.

Later, in a rehearsal scene for The Taming of the Shrew that includes fight choreography, Eichten is delightful and hilarious as she demonstrates to the actress Mouna Soualem how to beat up the stunt guy Jesse Kovarsky. With perfect physical and comedic timing, Eichten narrates the fight scene one roundhouse kick and jab at a time while also making it look incredibly real. The scene shakes up an otherwise desultory section that even Frederickson, as the director, claims to hate. Similarly, Yiannis Logothetis and Stephanie Troyak as the understudies often show up the lead couple of Schraiber and Soualem. They earn their keep and irk in equal measure, and at one point take a tango to a ravenous place beyond stereotype.

Yiannis Logothetis and Or Schraiber in “Broken Theater.” Photograph by Maria Baranova

In hindsight, these moments of levity were essential amidst the relentless spew of so many desires. The world of Broken Theater, and perhaps Smith’s work in general, is that of pure id (assigned in Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory as the part of the mind most primitive and instinctual, including our sexual and aggressive drives). And no one brought the id quite like Schraiber, playing the actor and, quite literally, the ape. From his obnoxious vocal warmups to his hyper-sexual advances on Soualem to his penchant for starting a fight with nearly every guy on the stage, his character puts his needs and wants first without a split-second thought. He can modulate between farcical and menacing and in a final duet with Soualem that escalates their love/hate spectacle, the violence emanating from him is difficult to watch. Likewise, in an earlier scene of fast gestures, GoGwilt plays his violin so furiously that he begins to shred it. The bow hair completely frayed off, strings broken, and tailpiece hanging, he begins to use it like a drum, beating the body with the stick of the bow.

But it is not only these more confrontational moments that speak of hidden desire or unspeakable memories. In a quiet section near the end, a small wooden chair made for a child that has haunted the set comes to the foreground. Solos from both Smith and Frederickson allude to what is not there.

This intimate reprieve is followed by more intense scene work. Soualem works through a contentious duet, alternating from Schraiber to Logothetis. In-between rounds, Smith and the other women swarm her like a boxer in her corner. Smith tries to revive her with pep talks, the others fussing over her clothes and spritzing her hair before pushing her back toward one of the men to try again. She is a champ though, and somehow, she makes it from this harrowing scene to a monologue where the roles have been reversed and she is now holding court over them all. A knife gleams as Frederickson peels an apple and looks on.

Eventually there is a final tussle for control of the knife. Smith scrambles to recover it before jabbing it into a sandbag, held up by Logothetis. They watch it empty to the sounds of Darmanie’s piano. He slumps over the keys, Logothetis collapses to the floor, and Frederickson mimes stabbing himself downstage, alone. Fraley begins to sing, dispersing them out of this fever dream with the repetition of the words “one grain of sand.” In a striking final image, we are left with the stabbed sandbag bleeding out and a hush as the dust begins to cover over everything.

Candice Thompson


Candice Thompson has been working in and around live art for over two decades. She was a dancer with Milwaukee Ballet before moving into costume design, movement education and direction, editing and arts writing. She attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, graduated from St. Mary’s College LEAP Program, and later received an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University. She has written extensively about dance for publications like Andscape, The Brooklyn Rail, Dance magazine, and ArtsATL, in addition to being editorial director for DIYdancer, a project-based media company she co-founded.

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