Directed by David Ottone
At the Minetta Lane Theatre (18 Minetta Lane)
8:00 p.m. Tues. through Fri. / 5:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. on Saturdays
For tickets ($20 - $66.66), call 212-307-4100 or visit www.Ticketmaster.com
Photo by Carol Rosegg
(L to R): Juan Ramos Toro, Fidel Fernandez, Raul Cano, Joseph Michael O’Curneen
Naughtiness squared; or tripled; or quadrupled
‘666’ does devil’s work with ‘black humor that’s wild and extreme’
BY JERRY TALLMER
When the show was over and the house lights came back up at the Minetta Lane Theatre, the woman sitting immediately to my right asked what I’d been writing so furiously on my pad.
Just what they were doing up there, I told her, but didn’t let her see the scribbles on that pad: words like urination, masturbation, ejaculation, male genitalia, female genitalia — or, more exactly, the somewhat less discreet common-usage equivalents of the above.
And the dirtiest word of all: Death. Along with music to suit — ranging from Brahms’s Lullaby to, with audience humming along, Happy Birthday to you, dear condemned persons, one and all, Happy Birthday to you.
Because we are all — like the four orange-clad death-row inmates of “666” — condemned persons, are we not? Might as well have some good dirty fun with it before we depart.
So: You have to be prepared for naughtiness squared or tripled or quadrupled if you want to join the thousands who have flocked to the Yllana Company’s worldwide wordless hit, “666” — currently at that Off-Broadway’s Minetta Lane Theatre, a year after scoring at that same venue during the 2009 New York International Fringe Festival.
Well, not quite wordless. There are moments when one can grasp wisps of “Oooo-la-la” and “Oui-oui” (“wee-wee,” get it?) and “Ouch!” and chimpanzee-talk and so on; but for the most part, it is mime alas mime that rules this devil of a show (666 is the Evil One’s number) that comes to us hot on the wing from Madrid, Spain.
“Three things I hate most in theater,” said a daughter who’d come along for the ride: “Mime, slapstick, and audience participation” — to which her father can now add: Strobe lighting effects. To underscore, for instance, running in place. Seems to me Marcel Marceau & Co. had worn that one out years ago,
But Marceau & Co. — as well as those super-witty mimes I did contrariwise love, Bill Irwin and David Shiner of “Fool Moon” — would not in a million years have splashed their urine upon the audience (all right, it was just water) or climbed out apelike over the footlights brandishing 3-foot-long make-believe tools of masculinity between their legs.
All right, enough of the negative. Let us endeavor, for a moment, to accentuate the positive. One strong positive, as it happens, is Joseph Michael O’Curneen, the only English-speaking member of the company.
I’m not sure if it was he who, in cop’s uniform, applied a metal detector to my belongings as I entered the theater, but in the good-cop/bad-cop sequences in the show, it is O’Curneen who plays the good cop.
Now, over a glass of ginger ale, he talked about how he and a handful of Madrid University comrades joined together in 1991, nearly 20 years ago, to put on some plays starting with Eugene Ionesco’s “The Bald Soprano.” From which had sprouted a Yllana Company to do cabaret acts at little joints around town.
And what does Yllana mean, or stand for?
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
The core Yllana guys, now as then, are actors Raul Cano, Fidel Fernandez, Joseph Michael O’Curneen and Juan Ramos Toro — along with, also from the beginning, company coordinator David Ottone, “who is solely devoted to finding work for the rest of us.”
Early on, the group received a commission to put on some sort of entertainment for a UNESCO assemblage in Madrid.
“Physical theater,” says O’Curneen. “From the beginning. No use of words. The UNESCO performance went so well, we decided to keep on in the same style, the same genre. Everything we’ve done since” — 16 different pieces performed thousands of times around the world — “has been developed from that single experience. There is no philosophy behind it.”
To O’Curneen’s best memory, “666” entered Yllana’s repertoire in 1996.
“The production just before it had been a very ‘family show’ about four sailors” — i.e., a nice-nice inoffensive work. “So now we decided to do something completely different; to challenge the audience but also to challenge ourselves, our own limits, with a black humor that’s wild and extreme. In rehearsals” — under David Ottone’s direction — “a lot of wild things happened that you don’t see in the show.”
In the thousand times they’ve done “666,” in Europe, Asia, Greenwich Village, everywhere, does the audience ever — so to speak — fight back?
“They laugh, they shout, they scream, but no violent reactions. In some cases they walk out of the theater. The ‘666’ characters are not clowns but buffoons — more extreme than clowns. Caricatures of evilness. Archetypes of evil and indecency.”
Ah yes. Back in the theater, a fog has swirled up as in a gas chamber, and someone has thrown a quick, surreptitious Heil Hitler salute. We have seen that before, in “Cabaret,” in “The Grey Zone,” in many other plays not to mention movies. The fog dissipates, and O’Curneen and others are choking to death at the ends of ropes — or somebody else is getting his head sawed off; and I, out there in the audience, think of the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl and hide my eyes, unable to look. Six six six. Sick sick sick.
But it’s just a show, right?
Joseph Michael O’Curneen, born in Madrid 45 years ago but nurtured at the Holy Spirit School in a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C., is the son of Morris Joseph O’Curneen, an American from County Kerry, Ireland, and Juana Cañas — a painter of pictures who, along with her English-teacher husband and their small son, preferred not to set foot in her native Spain until the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, which at long last took place in 1975.
“They put me in a British school in Madrid” — where, one imagines, there was little classroom time devoted to almost anything that occurs on stage during any performance anywhere of “666.”