Niae Knight (bottom), Dirk Weiler and Rachel Lu in a scene from The Gas Heart.
A surreal evening of performances
Play incorporates theater styles from the early twentieth century
By Jerry Tallmer
Everything old is new again. Welcome to 1955, when a young woman named Julie Bovasso, an inspired 22-year-old from Brooklyn, is introducing Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco, and Michel de Ghelderode to the United States of America, and vice versa, at the tiny Tempo Playhouse shes built with her own hands at 4 St. Marks Place.
Jump cut to 2005 and the Bank Street Theatre, on the banks of the ancient and honorable Hudson River, where a woman named Shela Xoregos has put together and is directing a quintuple bill of short Surrealist plays by Jean Cocteau, Eugene Ionesco, Michel de Ghelderode, Tristan Tzara, and Rene Magritte. Yes, the painter that Magritte.
Well, loosely speaking Surrealist plays. And gloomy de Ghelderode isnt really a Surrealist at all. Hes in there as a serious anchor, says Ms. Xoregos. His piece, Escurial, first staged here 50 years ago by Bovasso, gives us a mad, haunted, death-driven king who plays murderous games with Folial, his court jester. As I said, a bucket of laughs but a landmark in modern drama.
Fairly familiar to Off-Broadway theatergoers is Ionescos Maid to Marry, an extended exchange of rampant banalities between a Gentleman and Lady, or husband and wife.
GENTLEMAN: All French postmen are Corsican. Whod bring in our mail if there werent any postmen?
LADY: Theyre a necessary evil.
GENTLEMAN: Evil is never necessary.
LADY: How right you are, thats very true!
The Cocteau is a strangely straightforward but troubling short story, A Practical Joke, originally written as a radio play for Jean Marais, the sad, gorgeous, enchanted beast of Beauty and the Beast and Cocteaus bedroom (also of that other Cocteau masterpiece, Orpheus).
Tristan Tzara was, strictly speaking, a Dadaist (as in Tom Stoppards ingenious Travesties), but Tzara was also a bit of everything else. His The Gas Heart, in which the characters are Eye, Mouth, Nose, Ear, Neck, and Eyebrow, has enough shape and structure (of a sort) to qualify as Surrealist.
And the Magritte? Its called The Round Square, and all three acts fit onto three-quarters of one typed page.
It was David Willinger of City College, a specialist in Belgian Surrealist drama, who told Shela Xoregas about that epic, which, she says, set everything switching around in my mind until I said what can I do [in one evening] to show different styles of theater in 30 early years [1920s to 1950s] of the twentieth century. The combine is called On the Banks of the Surreal.
Shes especially proud of the two actors who do the Ghelderode Peter Johnson as the King, Rodney Sheley as the Fool and of the sculptured Constructivist costumes designed by Russias Galina Kuzmetsova for the Eye, Mouth, Nose, etc., of Tzaras The Gas Heart.
To put together this five-part bill, Shela Xoregos read plays weeks on end. What she didnt know when she started out was that two of her chosen Parisian playwrights, Tzara and Ionesco, were originally from Romania, and two others, Magritte and de Ghelderode, were originally Belgian.
The only Frenchman was Cocteau. And then I learned that Tzaras real name was Samuel Rosenstock. He was Jewish, and Ionesco was half-Jewish, and Magritte was half-Jewish.
How about yourself, Ms. Xoregos?
Im ALL Jewish.
The name Xoregos, pronounced Koraygoes, is, she says, Greek for Leader of the Chorus.
And your real name?
That is shrouded in mystery. But it wasnt Smith.
The daughter of a papa who was a cook and a mama who was a housekeeper, she was born and bred in Pascagoula, Mississippi, near Biloxi. How many Jews are there in Pascagoula? More than you think.
Shes been dancing, choreographing, and directing all over the place ever since emerging from Los Angeles City College. One major accomplishment has been a production of Strindbergs Miss Julie set to banjo music in the post-bustle American South of 1895, with a black Jean the valet whom Julie lusts for and despises.
The actors at Bank Street are Jen Arvay, Niae Knight, Rachel Lu, Christopher Berryman, Ian Christiansen, John Rose, Dirk Weiler, Peter Johnson, Rodney Sheley. Their director lives alone in Clinton. I take in cats once in a while. Tristan Tzara says thats okay.