New Crime

at the Prop Theatre, Rhinoceros Theatre Festival

New Crime’s Extravaganza in Fat Pads, the opening production of this year’s Rhinoceros Theatre Festival, is like a dream of falling, at once terrifying and exhilarating. And as in waking from a dream, I left trying to piece the experience back together, hoping to make some sense of this 30-minute thrill ride.

Under Polly Noonan’s impeccable direction, and festooned in Heather Priest’s deliciously excessive costumes, the nine-person cast go from zero to 90 in about two seconds. The piece begins as a woman on the brink of hysteria pretends to walk a tightrope across the stage. Then a brutal magician pretends to saw his assistant in half. Then a parachutist plummets through the air, his chute repeatedly refusing to open. These momentary vignettes, all presented at a frantic pace, appear out of nowhere, without introduction or context: the New Criminals effectively wrench conventional reality out from under our feet and thrust us into the thick of their maniacal, grotesque fantasy world.

Borrowing from Italian commedia dell’arte, the New Criminals don stark face paint and play all their scenes in a sharp, exaggerated, two-dimensional style. Offering the extremes of the four basic emotions–anger, fear, joy, and sorrow–the actors seem continually ready to burst, or at least tear one another’s heads off. Punctuated by Jef Bek’s expert percussion accompaniment, they hurl scenes onto the stage–and often into the audience as well–with split-second timing. Their precision is astonishing, especially considering the breakneck pace they maintain.

About halfway through, Extravaganza turns into a send-up of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, with all the drunken, pained, sexually charged excess for which Williams is notorious. When this section abruptly ends, the cast suddenly appear in a human pyramid singing a dirgelike “This Land Is Your Land.”

With so much furious energy onstage, even a mere half hour becomes quite an endurance test. The show’s relentless pace leaves little time for reflection, so it’s difficult to make sense of the many disparate elements. If the creators intended some meaningful comment on Williams, it seems rather thin. If the show overall is intended as ironic commentary on some segment of American culture, the subject and commentary never come into focus. The piece seems more concerned with exploring a particular style and its effect on an audience than with using that style to illuminate ideas.

So Extravaganza is a rather disappointing thrill, but a thrill nonetheless. As in a dream of falling, where the dreamer never lands, Extravaganza lacks a payoff. These artists display such remarkable skill and communicate so expressively that one longs for more substance. But perhaps it’s unfair to expect that much from a summer festival presentation–perhaps it makes more sense to simply indulge the anarchical exuberance of this hell-bent circus.