WHEN Through 7/15: Fri-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM

WHERE Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph

PRICE $15-$20

INFO 312-742-8497

Movement-based theater: the onstage equivalent of beach books and summer blockbusters, right? No major expenditure of brainpower is necessary, no searching for themes or figuring out who the characters are and what their motivations might be. You just kick back and watch and admire the feats of derring-do. This summer sees multiple productions that rely on dance or physical comedy or some other athletic display to entertain and make their point. Steppenwolf recently imported 500 Clown’s parodic interpretations of two literary classics, Macbeth and Frankenstein. Lookingglass has remounted its circus take on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. And the city’s invited Chicago Dance Crash to bring a new piece to the downtown Storefront Theater, just in time for the Taste and the influx of summer tourists.

But as the Crash’s Tiger Prawn: The Mountain Mover proves, dance theater needs a strong theatrical backbone–a suspenseful tale, interesting characters, plot development–to succeed. The company typically combines classic Western forms like ballet and modern dance with moves from martial arts and hip-hop–and the choreography here, by new artistic director Kyle Vincent Terry, is adept and expertly performed. But this 90-minute piece, including an intermission, dawdles despite all the muscular exertion.

The story, written by Terry with playwright Michael Dice Jr., zigs and zags. Set in some unspecified fantastic time before history and delivered by an onstage narrator–actually he’s perched above the stage, on a catwalk–it centers on Tiger Prawn, a young martial artist who supposedly gains expertise and wisdom from a tribe of invisible beings, the Kouken. They’re well realized: a troupe of seven, as silent and invisible as performers can be onstage, sticking to the shadows and landing almost noiselessly from leaps and flying kicks. But the Kouken’s character keeps changing: they attack Tiger Prawn, then they help her, then they prey on her again and she must escape them.

Her three human friends are equally confusing. Quarrelsome and combative, in the beginning they make fun of her and give her lowly tasks because of her poor fighting skills–they’re like the stepmother and stepsisters abusing Cinderella. Tiger Prawn’s pratfalls and awkward kicks provide a bit of comedy in this early section, which also establishes a character with somewhere to go: how will Tiger Prawn mature and succeed? Then one scene later she ventures into the forest, gets kidnapped by the Kouken, and presto! She’s a better martial artist. End of that story. Near the end, when her motivation is supposedly to return to and save her abusive human “friends,” you wonder why.

In some ways Tiger Prawn resembles the Crash’s 2005 piece, Tribulation and the Demolition Squad: a cohort of four humans battle a group of vaguely threatening nonhuman creatures in a mythological place. But the often funny writing in Tribulation (also delivered by a narrator) was marked by an ironic distance from the story. That distance didn’t prevent the likable characters from coming across clearly; it didn’t prevent you from rooting for them either. Here the script is overwrought, pompous, and utterly lacking in humor, and the human characters are perfunctory. Like that earlier piece, this one has a preshow: the Kouken dancers prowl the stage and seats. One tried to steal my press kit, and others escorted some late-arriving audience members to their seats, sometimes with considerable physical fanfare. They’re mischievous and curious–qualities that disappear once the actual show starts.

The piece is divided into little chunks, several of them preceding the story proper. Christopher Courtney–who also plays Sleeping Panther, one of the four humans–performs a solo at the beginning of the first and second acts. It’s apparently unrelated to the action, but his dancing is so remarkable it doesn’t matter. Fluidly blending hip-hop, martial arts, and modern dance, Courtney conveys the connections between fighting and showing off, physical effort and feeling. Filled with detail and nuance, these solos are the only truly expressive parts of the show.

Terry’s choreography, by contrast, is much more balletic and less fluid and nuanced, often lending a mechanistic quality to even the rough-and-tumble martial arts moves and adding a harsh, militaristic edge to a tale that already evinces plenty of hostility for no clear reason. Courtney’s dancing provides some relief from this dynamic but also makes it plain that it’s possible to combine these disparate styles in more complex ways. Only Marissa Moritz as Tiger Prawn–her final onstage role with the Crash–achieves a level of emotional communication, in part because her natural movement style is tough but also rounded and responsive.

Terry says in a program note that Tiger Prawn pays homage to the kung fu movies he loved as a child. He says he intends the story to be “simple,” but even a simple story should be clear and well told. Tiger Prawn isn’t painful to watch–the fight choreography is great, some of the best I’ve seen. But program notes and narrative explication aren’t enough to make it work, coming across instead as attempts to compensate for the underlying muddle of disconnected scenes and awkwardly cut-and-pasted snippets of music. Factor in the militaristic physical subtext and this “simple” show bereft of genuine characters and relationships communicates only mindless aggression.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Tiger Prawn: The Mountain Mover photo by Lindsay Schlesser.