Thursday, April 24, 2008

Cosmic Spelunker Theatre Reunion

Somehow, after a long hiatus, Cosmic Spelunker Theatre is rehearsing again-- not the incarnation of Cosmic Spelunker Theatre that produced Waltzing to War but the original trio of myself, William J. Barnum, and James Van Looy. The three of us had not performed together since the last Movement Works in Progress at the original Mobius Arts Space on Congress street in Fort Point. By coincidence, I had just screened an excerpt from this show for Art Hennessey's class at Emerson College.

Bill had broken his wrist sometime after and took time off from working with James and myself and eventually lost interest in coming back. James and I regrouped as a duo, eventually receiving a modicum of recognition. Chad Parenteau who has in recent years taken over the soon to be thirty-seven year old poetry venue, Stone Soup Poetry had steered our countless exchanges towards persuading me to return to Stone Soup. Despite our friendship, I had been reluctant due to events that had occurred when I had been on the Board of Directors long before Chad had become involved with the series (though I did become involved with Stone Soup's online journal, Spoonful.) More recently, Chad suggested a Cosmic Spelunker Theatre reunion to both Bill and James-- they agreed and once he had Bill and James on board, I agreed as well.

In an email dated March 28, 2008, Chad wrote back:

I'm so stoked you're coming back. I thought when I asked James to contact you that I was basically doing my impression of Lorne Michaels trying to reunite The Beatles.

Which besides begging the question as to how Stone Soup became solvent enough to offer us a check for US$3,200-- makes me wonder how it was a performance art troupe managed to become the Beatles of the Boston Poetry Scene during our hiatus. (The British rock analogy I was working with at the time however was that of the "power trio" in part because we were aiming for the sensory overload associated with such groups as The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream.) Obviously, we had an impact on somebody.

Currently, rehearsals seem to be aimed at recreating our performance at Mobius for the much smaller room at the Out of the Blue Gallery (incidentally, Cosmic Spelunker's first show was in the original Out of the Blue location) with some material from Waltzing to War and some of Bill's compositions.

The Cosmic Spelunker Theatre Reunion show will be on Monday, May 4th at 8pm at the Out of the Blue Gallery at 106 Prospect Street, Cambridge MA near the Central Square.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Formaggio di Amore

I'm currently in rehearsals with i Sebastiani in a show entitled Il Formaggio di Amore ("The Cheese of Love"). This time, as well as playing Arlecchino, I've found myself in the additional role of choreographer.

Ultimately, in a troupe where improvisation on a scenario is the norm, choreography is a collaborative effort, but it's given me a chance to craft some complex physical gags, be more involved in the blocking of scenes, and even help my fellow cast members develop the physicality of their characters as well as trying to solve problems suggested by the director. In the process, I've even choreographed my first (albeit brief) fight scene.

In playing Arlecchino, I find myself continuing with the character I developed in my interpretation of "The Starving Zanni" with healthy dose of inspiration from Harpo Marx and Animal from The Muppet Show thrown into the mix.

The first performance of Il Formaggio di Amore will be at the Barony of Carolingia' s annual May Day celebrations at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts on Sunday, May 4th at about 5:30pm. The event is free and open to the public, but as the Barony is affiliated with the Society for Creative Anachronism, an attempt at pre-1600 clothing is requested.

In the meantime, enjoy these photographs from i Sebastiani's April 1st, 2007 first performance at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C. I blogged last year about our second performance in the museum's auditorium. This first performance was in the museum rotunda. Photographs are by my father, Jay Thal. Catherine Crow was Isabella, Alex Lehman was Oratio, Michael McAfee was Pedrolino, Kristin Page was Mother Superior Olivia, Carl West was Arlecchino and Sophie, whose last name escapes me, and I had only met that weekend, played Flaminia.

A comparison between the photographs of each performance will reveal that I began the day with a beard and that later, I was clean shaven, though in actuality I was always clean shaven as the beard was prosthetic. The problem being that as a very physical performer, my sweat has a tendency to dissolve spirit gum, the adhesive used for theatrical make-up. At some point during a tumble, my beard went flying into the audience, so I decided to do without the beard for my second performance as Pantalone.

Click here for the full set of photographs.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Can You Identify These Puppets? Part II

Last summer, I asked my readers if they could identify two Javanese Wayang Kulit puppets I had acquired at a yard sale.

So far we have had a number of opinions, but still no definitive identification of our two figures, other than a consensus that they are Javanese and not Balinese in origin (which is what the seller informed me)-- one anonymous poster identifies them as being specific to Central Java.

The first figure, who has a red face, an elaborate headdress and a gold body certainly seems to be of noble or royal office, but we are still no closer to putting a name to him. One friend of mine suggested that he was Rāvana from the Rāmāyaṇa but that contradicts the seller's statement that both figures were from the Mahãbhãrata. Indeed the previously cited anonymous poster suggested:

the first charachter might be Baladewa [...] definitely not Ravana.

Of Baladewa, I know nothing, and of whom I have yet to find an English language reference-- I do not even know if he goes by another name.

The second, smaller, blue figure was clearly of a lower status than the more elaborately dressed figure, and I was eager to assume that he was one of the comical figures of the Wayang known as punokawan but my anonymous poster seems vehemently opposed to that hypothesis.

The second (the blue guy) is definitely NOT a punakawan.

Once again, can any reader identify these puppets? How can one know that they are one figure and not another of similar status? I would so like to know their names so that I can learn their stories.

Teatro Punto Workshop

Two weeks ago, I attended a day-long commedia dell'arte workshop conducted by Carlos García-Estévez and Katrien van Beurden of Teatro Punto. As commedia dell'arte is a rich tradition with a long history a day-long workshop could never be adequate to teach all there is to know, but neither is the time I have put in working first with the short lived Teatro Commedia, and currently with i Sebastiani, nor could the class I teach at Open Air Circus could have taught me all that I need to know as a commedia performer. Conversely, any opportunity to add to my knowledge, skills, insight, and experience with commedia is desirable.

Teatro Punto's approach to commedia is not that of historical recreation, but to take the archtypes represented by the masks and discover them in the contemporary world. All of the historical techniques of commedia are still relevant as ever, but the goal is not to indulge nostalgia, but to reflect a world that the audience recognizes.

The workshop began with a series of exercises revolving around being prepared to act in and react: an ability needed in the world of improvised theatre. Standing in a circle, we had to respond to any number of tasks, each round introducing a new tasks: tossing and catching balls, trading places with one other, passing objects, singing, stomping one's feet (this last one was quite simple for me owing to my kathak studies) all while staying in communication with one another. When one is multitasking in this manner, one realizes just how often one's mind has a tendency to drift, even in the altered state of performance.

Afterwards, we experimented with the physical stance of different characters-- something I have been doing since my earliest studies as a mime-- how different characters are made manifest by emphasis or inclination of the pelvis, abdomen, chest, or head. One insight I did gain was that while some of these stylizations are typical of specific of various comic archtypes, they are also representative of different theatrical genres, the puffed up chest that would serve an innamorato, or an arrogant Capitano while not appropriate for tragedy might also be appropriate for melodrama.

During the lunch break a few other workshop participants and I joined Carlos, Katrien, Judith Chaffee, a theatre professor at Boston University, who was acting as the host for the the workshop (check out her website, During lunch Carlos and Katrien discussed their time studying with Antonio Fava and how their approach to commedia differs, and we local participants discussed the difficulty in building an audience for any sort of physical theatre in the Boston area.

On returning to the classroom and began work on our own lazzi, encouraged to use mime, grammelot (nonsense syllables that resemble an actual language.) Afterwards, we were given a primer on the technique of the traditional leather mask-- how to hold it when placing it on the face and also how one is supposed to use the face behind the mask: Counter-intuitively, the face does not become passive when covered: all masks require holding one's eyes wide open, and certain masks (some of the vecchi, for instance) demand that one cover one's teeth with one's lips.

Katrien explained that in the early days of commedia, the actors were often hungry and desperate, and this did not only force them to innovate, but it meant that the tragic dimensions were as visible as the comedic. In modern western societies, there simply is little reason for an actor to be literally starving. Since withholding food was not an option as we had all eaten lunch, a new technique was added to create desperation: Carlos acted as an interlocutor for every one of us-- often disrupting the lazzo we had created earlier, with questions about our character's backstory, whether we are keeping our eyes open under the masks, and whether we were making contact with the audience or just going through our rehearsed lazzo. This was the most difficult part of the workshop, with many unexpected results.

A workshop is not just an opportunity to show off the technique one already had, or to learn new techniques, but to learn about one's own short comings as a performer. In my case, I realized that my own dedication towards developing my technique-- both in terms of the precision and skill of my mime work, and the detail with which I craft my routines, while an attraction to the audience, is also a shield I put up to avoid being vulnerable to the audience-- and so, something that this performer must overcome. That said, I highly recommend Teatro Punto's workshops to any performer interested in commedia dell'arte.