It was with high hopes that I attended the Pathological Theatre’s production of Bong Bong Bong Against the Walls, Ting Ting Ting in Our Heads at La Mama this past Friday. The company’s artistic director (and writer/director of this production), Dario D’Ambrosi, has amassed a distinguished career as theatre artist both in Italy and New York. The play interested me specifically because it was developed in collaboration with mentally-ill performers in D’Ambrosi’s company, and involved puppetry, a particular combination of elements I had never seen before. I was certain the result would be new, inspired, and unique. I was dissapointed. Bong Bong Bong attempts to be insightful, but is instead painful to the point of farce. The story, loosely told, follows Loga, (Ashley C. Williams) a school-age girl who breaks down in the middle of solving a math problem in class, and is either sent to, or dreams that she is sent to, a mental institution. Here, she is controlled by a villainous psychologist (George Drance) and then comforted by a magical fairy (Theresa Linnihan) who guides Loga toward a kind of acceptance of her state of mind.
The top of Bong Bong Bong is promising. The first thing we see are the puppets: they are pale and gaunt with alien faces and doll-like eyes. Designed in part by the institutionalized members of the Pathological Theatre, they possess a glimmer of what I was hoping to see: a perception of the world very different than my own. However, the puppets are dissapointingly under-used. The actors seem to have little understanding of how to manipulate and work with them, and the relationship between actor and puppet is unclear and uninteresting. Further, the actors set them down 15 minutes into the performance, returning to them only to pull sheaths of fabric out of their stomachs at a “pivotal” moment. One cares very little about their role and presence, and ends up thinking of them more as set pieces than anything else.
The play is a musical, and the music is of the contemporary Broadway-style – jarringly out of place among all of the other, non-traditional elements in the piece. The lyrics sound as though they are unwillingly jammed into the melodies, like a child attempting to write new lyrics to an old song on the spot. With kids, it’s cute. Here, it’s just painful.
Overall, the piece is poorly directed. There are scenes that last much longer than necessary, the pacing is strange, and actors often move about the stage randomly, seemingly at their own discretion. It feels like the early stages of an experimental process, before things become tightened, specified and rehearsed.
Redeeming moments do occur, thanks to two stand-out performers, Ashley Williams and Theresa Linnihan. Williams is a dynamic actor, with an engaging stage presence and lovely voice. At one moment, near the top of the play, Loga is asked to solve a math problem at the blackboard (x-y +2 =). Her attempt unearths a swirl of colorful images and poetry: as she talks through her ‘logic’ and works herself into a frenzy, she draws trees and circles on the blackboard, concluding that x – y + 2 = “a big beautiful lake.” Here and throughout the play, Williams strikes an impressive balance between intensity and empathy: she fully embodies Loga’s psychoses without alienating herself from the audience.
Theresa Linihan gives a subtle, intelligent performance as Loga’s mother and also doubles as a delightfully idiosyncratic fairy at the asylum. Both Linihan and Williams bring depth and meaning to their lines. They give us a taste of the beauty the script could offer, had it been better supported.
Other performances are less impressive. The two actors who play Loga’s fellow schoolchildren and inmates writhe and shriek across the stage, caricatures of mental patients that distract from the action in the scene. Here, the lack of direction is most evident: I feel I am watching an early rehearsal, not a finished product.
Then again, performances that are messy and raw are not automatically terrible. There is a beauty that can come of chaos, a kind of honesty and vulnerability that can potentially be more powerful than the most polished production. I’ve seen it work best in one-man shows, where the material is as raw and personal as the performance. However, the actors in this production are too distanced from the material for this to be true of Bong Bong Bong. All are New York-based actors, and are not, as far as I know, members of D’Ambrosi’s company of insitutionalized performers. It is as though D’Ambrosi has staged his company’s material with professional actors, and staged it in a way that he would have done had he been working with his company. It is an ill fit, and it ultimately fails.