at Link’s Hall, through May 16

The Sock Monkeys have always set a difficult agenda for themselves. They seem interested in movement rather than choreography, humor rather than comedy, theatricality rather than drama. Their work emerges from the cracks between disciplines, where definitions evaporate and logic is irrelevant.

In short, the Sock Monkeys create performance pieces out of nothing. Or everything. Or anything. Schoolgirl uniforms, fish stories, a fantasy of dancing on an el platform, the poetry of Wallace Stevens–all seem equally viable starting points. The trick, of course, is to select and orchestrate such disparate elements with enough care and then present them with enough ingenuity that they’re as accessible to an audience on first glance as they may be to the performers after months of rehearsals. Like I said, they set themselves a difficult agenda.

With their newest pieces the Sock Monkeys hit the mark nearly as often as they miss, which isn’t bad. None of the three pieces presented–Fish Tales and Links Plays, performed live, and The Destination, a collaborative film with Blair Jensen–comes together as a whole, and the fragments within each piece range from banal to sublime. Overall, the simpler the image and the less effort that seems to go into its creation, the more effective the communication.

A section from Links Plays, a series of vignettes that comprise the second act, illustrates this point. Bryan Saner, alone onstage, performs a curious little dance solo, hopping and shuffling along, twisting about, all the while trying unsuccessfully to scat. This section is delightful not only in its absurdity and sense of surprise–at one point he stops and lets out a tiny scream–but for its utter clarity. Each of Saner’s moves, which are so spontaneous and exuberant they seem improvised, is sharp and focused, making the dance effortless to apprehend. It’s exactly what it is, and that’s enough. The thoroughness of Saner’s exploration of this particular character makes the dance seem complete in itself.

When the dance is over, Saner recites a complicated poem by Wallace Stevens called “Debris of Life and Mind.” And suddenly the precision of the previous section is gone. Not only is it difficult to comprehend Stevens’s poem (although having it printed in the program is helpful), its relationship to the dance is unclear–and its placement, coming just on the heels of the dance, seems to demand interpretation or decoding. Stevens’s intricate verse simply can’t stand up to the purity and theatricality of Saner’s dance, and the poem ends up having little impact.

It’s crucial to the Sock Monkeys’ vision that images evolve in unexpected ways. Early in Links Plays the four performers–Lydia Charaf, Kay Wendt LaSota, Saner, and Jeanette Welp–execute an intricately syncopated rhythm involving hand claps and foot stomps. This rhythm evolves into a movement section in which Charaf, held horizontally by the others, walks along the wall. This section evolves in turn into a song about a woman who feels free dancing without socks. Throughout this expertly orchestrated section images evaporate almost as soon as they’ve come into focus. This technique not only makes the work giddy and playful–the piece always seems to be running away with itself–but allows momentum to build, carrying the audience along on a circuitous journey. Meaning develops from the accumulation of evocative details.

At other times, particularly in Fish Tales and The Destination, the pace is decidedly slower and the work has a more contemplative feel. However, the playful images remain ambiguous. Unfortunately the relaxed pacing invites a deeper investigation of images that, by their nature, hold significance on their surface. As a result these sections are frustratingly opaque.

Throughout, the performers are eminently watchable, however. Their work is characterized by an undeniable honesty. When they bump into each other, they mumble “Excuse me.” When they screw up even worse, they admit it. They never conceal that they’re out of breath most of the time, but neither do they wear their exhaustion on their sleeves, trying to impress us with the physical demands of their work. As a friend of mine said during their last concert at Columbia College, they are easy performers to like. This effortless charm is perhaps the Sock Monkeys’ greatest strength, for it helps make an audience comfortable watching highly idiosyncratic and ambiguous work that might otherwise be off-putting.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Blair Jensen.