Wand Music

At its best, the New York International Fringe Festival showcases daring, original, exciting productions deserving of further stage lives. The Blue Cake Theater Company's intelligent, intriguing, heartfelt performance-art piece Theremin: Music From the Wave of a Hand, written by and starring Ben Lewis and Duke Doyle, exemplifies the Fringe at its best. The title refers to the first electronic musical instrument and its tragic Russian inventor, Leon Sergeevich Teremin. The theremin, its inventor, and its first virtuoso, New York University music student Clara Rockmore, captivated America in the 1920s. Then, Leon Theremin mysteriously disappeared. His instrument followed his vanishing before making a resurgence in the 1950s in the soundtracks to The Day the Earth Stood Still and other sci-fi films. A retro signifier of weirdness, kitsch, and alienation, its haunting electronic trills are featured in the Beach Boys's "Good Vibrations."

Brian Wilson, the possibly schizophrenic Beach Boys songwriter, is the play's protagonist. As played by Lewis, Wilson talks to a theremin and to his ghostly idol Theremin (Doyle) while holed up in his home, straitjacketed. Society destroys genius, Wilson insists. Observe Theremin, who spent many of his lost years in the dreadful Kolyma Gulag. But, as Wilson explores Theremin's life, work, dreams, and delusions, he destroys treasured myths about genius, music, and alienation.

Doyle and Lewis competently act the characters they wrote, even though they both look a little young for the roles. Lewis's Wilson exudes the naïve energy of the garage-band Mozart, modulating his madness with moments of piercing clarity. Doyle's Theremin is socially awkward but diplomatic and charming. He plays Theremin's fear of the KGB and other, more personal demons quietly but clearly. As Theremin's muse Rockmore, the versatile Elizabeth Palin is stoical and equally convincing as Theremin's wide-eyed 22-year-old protégé and weary, elderly traveling disciple. Gabe Levey maintains a stiff upper lip and nebbishy demeanor as Theremin's Soviet manager Alexander.

A fragmented, nonlinear, and often stylized performance style makes Theremin much more than a docu-play about a pair of creative eccentrics. One section, in which scenes from Theremin's life are frantically replayed in the style of a sci-fi B movie, is a riot. Wilson's selective memory and runaway imagination also make for some surprising narrative twists. Finally, thereminist John Hoge plays live onstage. There is a lot of "multimedia" performance in this city, where the "multimedia" is the icing on the cake. Here, it's an essential ingredient.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post