Dali’s Liquid Ladies

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At its essence, Puppet Uprising is not a consortium of puppeteers from up-beat Philadelphia, but a presenting company – a core of people tapped into the traffic of alternative performers circulating the country, who find venues and assemble audiences for these pieces.  They make it possible for the inclined public to see work that would otherwise find its element in backyards or living rooms.  The genre ranges wildly in style and in tradition (or lack thereof), but as creative expression it falls more under art than theater.  Uprising has grown in this direction from roots in radical puppetry, and is now meeting a segment of the fine-arts world whose colorful utopianism, D.I.Y. aesthetic, and often narrative content pushed it into fringe galleries if not fully alternative spaces.  It’s a shame that the Rotunda, Uprising’s regular venue, chiefly attracts a West Philly activist crowd, but this is changing – due not to publicity efforts, but to a melding of different scenes of artists. Last Friday, Uprising brought Bedlam Theater from Minneapolis to perform Dali’s Liquid Ladies to the Rotunda, and this weekend, they bring Trutheater Theater to Space 1026.

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In vaudeville style, Dali’s Liquid Ladies began by welcoming us to the performance, a maneuver charming not because it has, indeed, waned, but because it demarcates the experience.  Playwright Savannah Reich (also playing one of the three ladies) has here re-imagined the 1939 World’s Fair, where Dali assembled a surrealist funhouse.  The simple set, cast in eerie red light, is a fabric-draped armature that gently embraces the performers.  The costumes give the visual kick: collages of ripped fishnets, multi-colored swaths of vinyl, star-glitter bras, and neon tassels.  (The star is dressed as he always is.)

Dali is wild-eyed, mustached, with an accent that mixes Spanish and French.  The Liquid Ladies form his coterie, as both models and muses.  They help Dali spin his own myth.  One poses for him; he intently adjusts her so that four lemons balance on contorted limbs, chin, and shoulder. (Is this a reference to a painting?)  Consumed with his vision, he madly commands her to freeze, then stares, utterly enraptured yet as far away as his own landscapes.  That stare alone accomplished more than the entire lead character in a play I saw earlier this week.  Indeed John Mac Cole’s performance is the gem of the show; his unflinching wide eyes and tense composure counterbalance well the overall tone of dada silliness.  “Silence!,” he thunders, when disturbed at his canvas. “The wizard of painting needs silence!”  Roaming the stage, imposing and obstreperous, Dali is left to offer a soliloquy on his “paranoid-critical method.”  Though he delivers forcefully, he struggles in articulating his concept of art, and so a cool, detached female voiceover asks: “Could you please restate that as a manifesto?”

A soldier stumbles in, tall and strapping, bearded and uniformed, asking directions to the National Socialist Party.  Dali informs him that he’s indeed found it, though the lair doesn’t resemble anything of a military headquarters.  The Party has changed!  “These days, we have new ideas…we are no longer concerned with the color of hair or eyes, but what is in the mind!”  Samantha Reich has read the history, and if you know it too, you’ll get more out of this surrealist spoof of Dali’s murky politics.

Samantha has written Dali to play up his megalomania, and it comes off well.  As the Liquid Ladies fall under his spell, jealousy rears.  The soldier joins the cult of surrealism as well; he poses, naked, and proclaims with chin held high: “he is going to give me the head of a giraffe!  (This takes the performance’s loudest laugh.)  Rather than infighting, they mutiny against Dali; Dali confesses to the audience that his mystique is empty; and there is general surrealist pandemonium. Her head between the curtains, the playwright has the last word: “Whose dream are you watching?  It’s supposed to be mine!”

This meta-comment gets precisely at what’s special about the Puppet Uprising genre.  ‘Theater,’ even experimental, is too narrow a term for it, while ‘performance art’ is too laden with conceptual connotations.  More than other creative forms, Uprising shows welcome you into artists’ crazy dreams.  Sometimes, you get a grab-bag of short acts, and sometimes, like tonight, a single longer piece.  The work shares in theater, in costume-art, in sculpture (qua set and props), and in conceptual creativity, but is itself none of them.  I spoke afterwards to Kait Sergenian, who played one of the three Ladies, and couldn’t quite find the word: “It’s always…”, I searched, and she nailed it: “…fun.”  “We’re crazy people,” she continued.  “Bedlam, it’s an old word for asylum.”  And where were the wandering fools headed next?  “Pittsburgh.  We’re playing in a backyard.”

At this point, Morgan Andrews inquired.  He’d brought Bedlam back after their apparently wonderful puppetized version of King Lear at Philadelphia’s Shakespeare festival, but didn’t recognize any of these five performers.  Kate explained that Bedlam encompassed many individuals and many projects.  She used the n-word.  “We’re a network.”  This term often reeks of self-advancement, but in the creative segment of Minneapolis, networking makes flourish the best energies.  While Dali travels, for example, the folks at home are staging a new piece; meanwhile, Kate’s regular gig is manager of Bedlam’s restaurant.  “In the new space,” she added, “we also have a bar.”  Damn Philadelphia, follow suit.

In the meantime, you can see two more Uprising events this weekend: Beth Nixon’s Suitcase Showcase at 50th & Baltimore, and Trutheater Theater at Space 1026. The latter calls itself “a spirited troupe of actors, silkscreeners, puppeteers, noisemakers…and illusionists from Providence, whose performances are akin to mystical rites of passage.”  The former: “five small suitcase shows, each presenting a different facet of possibility for the boxy baggage that might otherwise be sleeping in the eaves of our attics.”  Admission is sometimes a sliding scale, and generally irrelevant.  Please go.

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