Shaving the Gorilla

The cross-disciplinary performance company known as anna&meredith state that their work “unites the most compelling elements of dance, theater, and devised performance.” Composed of playwright Anna Moench (a member of the 2010 Emerging Writers Group at the Public Theater) and director Meredith Steinberg (a Brooklyn-based choreographer and dance educator about to enter the MFA Dance program at Temple), their Death of the Ball Turret Gunner was a Time Out New York Critic’s Pick of the 2008 FringeNYC. Anna&meredith were also in residency at Spoke the Hub as the First Place Winner of the 2009 Winter Follies. Blending movement and music into performance in interesting ways, their new show, Gormanzee & Other Stories, now playing in the intimate basement The Flea Theater in Tribeca through July 25, is three distinct one-acts strung together. Running about an hour and forty-five minutes, the evening starts strong with “Bill It,” wanes slightly in the middle with “The House on the Shore,” and ends with a creative bang with “Gormanzee.”

“Bill It,” the first and longest of the one acts, is a look at the patrons and staff of an upscale restaurant. The entire cast enters together and breaks into a delightful dance. A stylized pas de deux of the two hostesses, as enacted by Jean Ann Douglass and Sarah Elmaleh, follows. Their mirror-image duet contrasts with their soon-to-be-divulged personalities — vainglorious veteran and unenthusiastic newcomer, respectively. With overlapping dialogue and frenetic interruptions, this opening sequence deftly encapsulates not only the difficulty of scoring a reservation at a trendy restaurant, but also the frustration of being able to take advantage of it.

Once the hostesses have greeted and kept at arm’s length the evening’s guests, the action begins. The arch interaction between gossipy girlfriends Claire Gresham and Elisa Matula reveals a deliciously dark edge, while earnest toy designer Dave Edson is raked over the coals by a buffoonish toy manufacturer (Nathan Richard Wagner) and his hilariously cartoonish yes-man (Edward Bauer). A few couples on dates and a jaded server (Molly Gaebe) with a history with one of the patrons complete the cast of characters. An animated piece that produces both giggles and guffaws (especially Molly’s profane malbec recommendation), the scene transitions are carefully choreographed as characters “spin” in and out of the forefront. “Bill It” is the strongest and most compelling of the three one acts, nimbly incorporating movement and music into both the action and the characters and whetting the audience’s appetite for more to come.

Two shorter pieces follow a brief intermission. The two-character “House on the Shore” raised a lot of questions for me. Is it simply a memory play about the sole remaining resident of a closed-down beach town reminiscing about his lost love? The most dramatic of the three one acts, “The House on the Shore” is also the most perplexing. Why is Gart (touchingly portrayed by Nathan Richard Wagner) constantly sopping up water spills? Why are there towels everywhere? Is the ocean slowly encroaching on his residence? Are we supposed to believe that global warming has caused water levels to rise so high that this once coastal town is now being flooded? Although I found the dances between Gart and his ex-lover/therapist/friend Tess (Elisa Matula) tinged with poignancy and the original music by David Moench beguiling, I’m not sure I understood what this particular piece was about. What is happening to this house, this town, and this couple? And, even more importantly, why is this dour one-act sandwiched in between two much more playful pieces?

The title of the final piece, “Gormanzee,” is an amalgam of three characters: a gorilla (brought to life by a trio of puppeteers), a human (Edward Bauer), and a chimpanzee (Sarah Elmaleh). As a chef (Claire Gresham) enters the stage and nonchalantly examines her cooking and cutting utensils, one gets the feeling that this one act, billed as “a macabre puppet comedy exploring ritualistic primate slaughter,” will be a gory story. One by one the “gor,” “man,” and “zee” enter. An incredible variety of red props spew around the stage in an effort to recreate spurting blood and disemboweled organs. I won’t give away the somewhat unexpected ending, but the giddy mayhem of this theatrical evisceration is hampered by a punch line that simply doesn’t deliver. What should be a revelatory moment turns out to elicit no more than perfunctory shrug.

But all in all, this “evening with anna&meredith” has a lot to recommend it, including a uniformly superb and committed cast and an abundance of amusing theatricality. Gormanzee & Other Stories, despite its flaws, is still an exuberant show that bursts with creativity.

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