The miraculously flexible 3LD Art and Technology Center is best known for productions with nontraditional sets (last season's Wickets transformed the theater into a passenger airplane) and inventive media (its Eyeliner video projection system allows companies access to cutting edge technologies). In New Island Archipelago, veteran avant garde theater group The Talking Band utilizes both aspects of signature 3LD shows: the theater is cleanly converted into the deck of a cruise ship; passengers' dreams are depicted in video on a cabin wall. Written and directed by Talking Band artistic director Paul Zimet, New Island Archipelago's plot is reminiscent of mid-century musicals, or else Shakespeare: happenstance places long lost family members on the same boat, cruise passengers don disguises, entrepreneurs scheme about land purchases. But the Talking Band mixes things up with suavely jovial musical numbers and story arcs which don’t quite resolve themselves – and then there are those dreams.
Shot in black and white and projected against the back wall, the video dream sequences, by Simon Tarr, depict each characters' subconscious sleep with an eerie beauty. As the play progresses and the characters confront one another on the increasingly claustrophobic cruise ship, so too do their dreams reveal the impact of their encounters with their shipmates. Fantasy, reality, and anxiety begin to converge, without pointing to obvious questions or convenient answers.
With 35 years of theater making under its collective belt and roots in Joseph Chaiken’s famed Open Theater, The Talking Band skillfully girds New Island Archipelago against oversimplification, or worse, vagueness. Up and coming downtown theater groups would do well to look toward the high standards set by this production, a serene meditation peppered with quirkiness. Founding member Ellen Maddow’s musical score heightens the production’s sense of whimsy; she also delivers a spot-on performance as worry wart cruise passenger Dot. The rest of the ensemble is similarly engaging, especially Todd D’Amour as Lem, cruise waiter and crusader for the proletariat, whose presence during the outlandish passenger talent show is at once generous, wordless, and very, very funny.
The production design extends into the 3LD's lobby, adorned with shuffleboards and photo ops. Once inside the the house, Nic Ularu’s sets and Nan Zhang’s lighting encapsulate the space in light colors suggestive of the seas' openness while also managing to induce the claustrophobia of an overcrowded cruise ship. Costume designer Olivera Grace does a terrific job dressing the characters to playfully suit their archetypal roles; a tiny hat worn by violist Beth Meyers is a particularly nice touch. Meyers and musician Harry Mann round out the off-kilter cruise as the ship’s band.
At the May 25th performance of New Island Archipelago, in a convergence as surreal as any depicted over the course of the play, costumed actors, shuffleboard playing audience members, and throngs of protestors carrying placards with incendiary messages all mingled in the lobby of the 3LD. In the next room, lower Manhattan’s monthly Community Board meeting was taking public comment on a proposal to construct a mosque near the World Trade Center site, bringing the production’s themes of community and obligation into sharp focus. The mash-up felt very New York: with space at a premium, islands can produce a lot of tension. New Island Archipelago controls that tension and uses it to craft a fine performance. Outside the theater, the tension is less controlled.