Dance of Death

There’s a lot to admire in the dazzling Gin & ‘It’, now playing at P.S. 122 in the East Village. Created and directed by Reid Farrington, a former video designer for The Wooster Group, this multimedia production shares a similar aesthetic with that boundary-pushing ensemble, melding film installation and live performance in spectacular fashion. Farrington’s The Passion of Joan of Arc from 2008 (also at P.S. 122) was his directorial debut. Gin & ‘It’ reaches further than that visually stunning solo performance of Carl Theodor Dryer’s 1928 silent film masterpiece with four live performers onstage recreating Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. The actors from the master of suspense’s 1948 thriller starring Jimmy Stewart and Farley Granger have been digitally isolated and projected on to moveable screens that a quartet of Grips shuttle around the set while simultaneously enacting the film’s main actions in a striking celluloid/human hybrid.

Most of Rope, a retelling of the infamous and true Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb story of two gay, Nietzschean “supermen” who kill a friend for the thrill of it, remains intact for much of Gin & ‘It’. A few reels of the film are intentionally left out towards the end, but the narrative does not suffer for that omission.

Rope was called a “stunt” by Hitchcock, who was attempting to portray the one-act, one-set drama as having been shot in one continuous take. Gin & ‘It’, likewise, tries to recreate the complexity of the technical demands of such a shoot. Farrington’s intricate choreography of the action is awesome to behold, especially when the Grips act out moments of the film with the help of simple props such as cigarette lighters or hats, with the faces or various body parts of the film’s actors displayed on the moveable screens.

Having rewatched Rope before attending the show, I was able to concentrate on the ballet-like rhythms of the hard-working Grips, who hit their cues with precision, except for a probable newcomer (played by Christopher Loar) who kept missing his marks and was reproached with barks of “It’s gotta be perfect!” by head Grip Karl Allen. This obsession with perfection parallels the killers’ own desire for supremacy.

Additional layers added on to the recreation of this filmic “perfect crime” become the most fascinating aspects of the production. The flirtation between and subtle sexuality of the cast members mimics the unspoken gay relationship of the movie’s killers, Brandon and Phillip. (“It” being, after all, the term coined by Hitchcock and screenwriter Arthur Laurents for homosexuality to evade the censors.) And when Chris, the not-so-perfect Grip, is bound, gagged, and hung from his feet in the middle of the stage, the violence is an obvious correlation to the strangulation of the “inferior” classmate of the Leopold and Loeb stand-ins that gives the film its title.

Although I found the production a bit too esoteric for the average theatergoer, I was fascinated by the blurring of filmmaking and theatermaking techniques on display. Is the show simply a visual diary of the attempt to recreate Hitchcock’s film onstage? Or is it an insider’s view of what it takes to create a precisely-orchestrated multimedia production, including the training (and hazing) of cast members and technicians?

A familiarity with both the original source material and perhaps even the behind-the-scenes workings of movies or theater (or both) might be helpful in appreciating the complexity of the goings-on onstage. But the interweaving of film, theater, and technique in Gin & ‘It’ remains an inventive and fastidious tour de force that stands as a fitting homage to Hitchcock himself and the spirit of artistic creation as well.

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