UPDATE: The weather in New York is beautiful, so why not? WINDOW 2 extends June 5-17 in front of ICRNY building. This Romanian-American time-based installation, written by Saviana Stanescu, strolls into the realm of performance design. Created & directed by Ana Mărgineanu. Designed by Daniela Codarcea Kamiliotis.
The show reopens | June 5 through 7 | June 12 through 18 | and runs every 20 minutes from 8:30 pm to 10:00 pm each evening | Except for June 17 (no performances)
The following review was based on the last performance in the evening of Monday, May 28th.
The Romanian Cultural Institute in New York presents
the second installation of The Window
A Site-Specific Theatrical Work Created for the Storefront Gallery Window
Created & Directed by Ana Mărgineanu
Designed by Daniela Codarcea Kamiliotis
Written by Saviana Stănescu
May 23 – 29
I confess; my heart sank a little at first. Oh, no, not another Alice. Not another excuse to run down a rabbit hole of Lewis Carrollian hijinx. Antonin Artaud once declared, “No more masterpieces,” to which I felt like adding “No more mad-hatters” and “No more tea parties” (and not just the political variety). Haven’t we learned that excessive dependence on Alice in Wonderland has turned a timeless classic into a torpid and overdone trope? This was, admittedly, a knee-jerk reaction on my part, because the experimental brilliance of the first installment of The Window was its elusiveness. At no point did it ever completely gratify you with a conventional text-based experience of a play.
The Window is a unique theatrical experience, because enigma is a principal aspect of its charms. An inspiring two-part site-specific performance-design project created and directed by Ana Mărgineanu for the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York (RCINY), The Window asks you to pay close attention if you happen to stroll by RCINY’s consulate offices. Not everybody lingers, although many passersby do slow down their gait or turtle their necks to catch a second glance.
If you do pause on the street to take a peek, you will quickly discover that you can’t hear the words the actors are speaking. If you decide to hang out for the whole 20-minute duration, you will be rewarded with some kind of dramatic narrative or story arc, even though the project withholds crucial dramaturgical information. The surprise is that you come to admire the ambiguity of the experience. Whether you stay or move on, the visual impressions it leaves behind enlarge in our mind’s eye. What we glimpse through RCINY’s glass windows are so utterly different from anything we’re likely to see in New York City, on stage or off, or in any of Manhattan’s mercantile shops (such as Barney‘s or Bergdorf Goodman).
It was a good thing I decided to stay. Because I noticed something odd happen: 4 Alice, Saviana Stanescu‘s smart and swanky 20-minute play contribution to The Window, hits the “Rewind” button, then starts again. And again. And again. The other actors either haul Alice off on her feet and physically carry her, or she herself restarts the plot by bouncing back to the green-lit gallery, which serves as the play’s starting point.
Stanescu’s Alice, figured here as a dancer, is not actually the child Alice whom Carroll dreamed up in his fairytale. There is a family resemblance between the two Alice’s, for sure, but 4 Alice trades on our familiarity with Carroll’s famous childhood fairytale to convey something else: a strange, off-the-hook, visual-wonderland riff that owes more to Ibsen and feminism than it does to Carroll’s fixation with girls. Stanescu’s Alice subtly parallels the bizarre games that Carroll’s Alice encounters, which correspond to the journey from childhood to adulthood. 4 Alice is nevertheless its own thing.
More to the point: In Stanescu’s play, Alice is forced to re-live her reined-in female identities in a seemingly endless cycle. Stanescu’s re-visioning is about a theme and its variations. Her Alice is stuck not in a rabbit hole but in a Groundhog Day, with the rabbit and the cat (in various guises) demanding over and over and over again that she adhere to playing circumscribed female roles or stereotyped identities, when all she desires is to dance the dance of liberation.
This may sound like a metaphysical feminist conceit, but it does not actually unfold like one in performance. For the most part, you are scurrying from one window to another just to follow along the story. (Unlike the first Window iteration, which was created by scenographer Nic Ularu and playwright Samuel D. Hunter, Stanescu and scenographer Daniela Codarcea Kamiliotis mostly ignore the slim glass door in between the two main windows as a frame for storytelling.) Video plays throughout on a large screen in the first window. Created by Igor Molochevski and Masha Pekurovsky, the video shows images of Alice’s sweet face and torso, spinning ’round and ’round in the frame or moving sensually back and forth, sometimes with a rain of flower petals or rays of light bursting in the shadows.
This green-lit room is where the piece officially begins and ends, thanks to helpful titles (such as “Alice 0.01 – Alice tries to be the perfect wife”) which indicate the three sections. In each section, a gentleman caller clutching a bunch of roses appears through the interior door. He seems to be asking her hand in marriage. This room, covered on one wall with what looks like astroturf lining, represents a garden. This room is where Alice, wearing a slightly tattered-looking white dress, is at her freest. Smiling, she prances about like a ballerina. She rushes to a corner, leans against a wall, draws her leg outward, toe pointed, and then stalks diagonally across the room. At one point, she leaps on a ledge by the window to gaze and smile directly at us. (This movement will be repeated later on to produce an angrier effect.) The suitor’s sudden appearance interrupts her dance. Somehow it knocks Alice off her feet, setting off a new direction. The performers move to an adjacent storefront space, and we follow them over to the next window.
Much of the main action of 4 Alice recurs in this second window. (A scenographic weakness in The Window, more evident in Stanescu’s play than in Hunter’s script, is that both texts do not allow for simultaneity.) Here is where Daniela Codarcea Kamiliotis’s effulgent scenographic eye blossoms. She wraps the walls and columns with great swatches of linen and cloth. Assorted objects hang in the air: an umbrella, white paper lanterns, a disco ball, gold-plated shoes, a wide-brimmed hat, feathers, furs, amorphous objects, gauzy drapes, and (if you look closely) a framed illustration of Kamiliotis’s character sketch (on brown paper). Yellow, bright pink, deep browns, splashes of red and the glory of beige dominate this second room.
RCINY’s program materials have done Kamiliotis a grave injustice by crediting her only with the scenic design. Her creative contribution is so much more. In fact, she designed the costumes and the masks. Kamiliotis is a total scenographer, possessed with the good taste and intelligence to deliver a complete vision that visually transmits the substance of Stanescu’s dialogue-driven play. The contrast between the stark green ethereality of the first window and the romantic fantasia of the second window could not be more naked to the eye. Yet both windows are of piece. As different as they are, Kamiliotis unites them through pictorial metaphor. Both windows punch up anti-gravitational themes and suggestions of flight.
Because so much of the scenography is flouncy, frilly, bouncy and airy, it comes as a shock for us to see that Stanescu’s Alice spends most of her time either confined or corseted or stuck in a wheel-chair or physically crippled. When Robin Johnson‘s Alice 1, who tries to be the perfect wife, hauls her body into the second room with a walker, we realize that the dancer is a cripple. She eats soup on a table, set upstage on a small riser, with her husband, and then suddenly Ines Garcia’s acrobatic legs in fishnet stockings (she plays a burlesque dancer) pops up from behind and waves for attention, bright lacy panties dangling on her toes.
In the second, less riotous scene, where Alice 2 tries to be the good daughter, we find Johnson again (in a superb, all-out, anything-goes performance) confined in a wheel-chair, her black-socked legs forming a capital letter V in the air. Garcia, who again gives a virtuoso performance, morphs into a pushy mother-figure. She squeezes Alice into a corset in preparation for the arrival of her suitor, who sports rainbow-colored hair. Alice attempts to take control of both situations, but her efforts are futile.
As Alice 3, in which she tries to be a good Alice, we find her on her feet and seeming to be more in command, except that she ends up fighting to wrest control of her own destiny and (at one point) literally drags her heavy legs across the tiled floor. Eventually Alice 3 realizes that she is actually trapped inside a white gallery, with strangers gazing upon her in wonderment through a glass window. Leaping on a ledge in this second window, Alice stops being a nice girl. She glares at us spectators. She points an accusatory finger at us. Through the glass window, we see and hear her loudly berating us. It is an ugly sight. It is an in-your-face moment that acknowledges the liminal presences of the spectators standing outside the windows of the storefront. Once again, the scene ends badly. The cat and the rabbit wrap Alice in huge piece of embroidered cloth. Trapped now in a shroud, Alice’s body might as well be a mummy. The cat and rabbit carry her aloft and drop her inside the green-lit gallery.
With the indispensable help of choreographer Melanie S. Armer, Mărgineanu beautifully transforms Stănescu’s talky script into a kind of silent movie festooned with gestural performative actions. It’s almost a work of tanztheater. Just watch the way Armer choreographs Johnson’s powerful leg work from scene to scene. You will see a dramatic journey unto itself, except that it is cast in movement. Stanescu’s 4 Alice is the female analogue to the first Window play, Samuel D. Hunter’s “I was thinking….” But where Hunter’s play offers us a dying man’s flashbacks to the life that he lived, Stanescu’s 4 Alice offers a mordantly funny and multivalent reconsideration of a woman’s life.
I wish that Stanescu or Mărgineanu were more explicit in pointing out for us who the fourth Alice was. We never actually meet her. By deductive inference, I can only surmise that the Alice portrayed in the video in the green-lit gallery might be Alice 0.04. If this were true, then it would have been imperative for Kamiliotis to know this information, so that she could have a chance to telegraph this point scenographically.
No matter: As I have noted before in a previous review, I see The Window as a time-based installation that strolls into the realm of performance design. Words are not the most vital element in this visual-art/performance project. In Window 2, Stanescu’s resplendently funny script, Kamiliotis’s intelligent scenography, Armer’s expressive choreography, Johnson’s bravura performance as Alice, Garcia’s legs-a-flying gusto, and most of all Mărgineanu’s splendid conceptual realization of The Window — all of it merge in a heavenly medley that you can’t help but be inspired by.
The Window has turned out to be a jewel of experimental theater, as well as a highly accessible piece of entertainment. I suspect that if The Window took place in a busier neighborhood such as Times Square, it probably would not have made such a splash. Its charms would utterly get lost amid Broadway’s bright lights and white noise. Taking place on the street level of what is otherwise a consulate embassy, The Window is perfectly placed. It will no doubt be remembered as the performance-design project that catapulted RCINY to community prominence in midtown Manhattan’s gray, nondescript business district.
As for Mărgineanu, the Romanian-born director who has shown time and time again that she thinks courageously in design terms, The Window represents another small triumph in a surprisingly eclectic and imaginative body of site-specific work.
4 ALICE, a play written for THE WINDOW by Saviana Stanescu, features set design by Daniela Codarcea Kamiliotis, choreography by Melanie S. Armer, light design by Stephen Arnold, video design by Igor Molochevski & Masha Pekurovsky, and is directed by Ana Mirgineanu with assistant director Patricia Masera. 4 ALICE features Robin Johnson, Nick Smerkanich and Inés Garcia.
The production plays from May 23 to 29. It performs every 20 minutes between 8-10 pm. Admission is free. The Window is located at the RCINY Storefront Window, 573 – 577 Third Avenue, at 38th Street. Subway: 4,5,6,7,S to 42nd/Grand Central.
The Window plays every 20 minutes between 7:30 and 10:00 pm in the storefront window of the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York (573 – 577 Third Avenue, at 38th Street; Subway: 6 to 42nd/Grand Central). All performances are free and open to the public. For more information, visit www.icrny.org.
- Performance review: Watch a storefront story from a New York sidewalk in this Romanian-American collaboration (theaterofoneworld.org)
- Links of Interest: Vintage Alice in Wonderland, A Studio Gibli Film, Cute pictures & a Freebie (loniedwards.com)
- critical readings: alice in wonderland (engl329b.wordpress.com)
- critical analysis questions for alice in wonderland (engl329b.wordpress.com)
- lecture on alice in wonderland (engl329b.wordpress.com)
- Alice in Wonderland, in 24 Vintage Magic Lantern Slides (brainpickings.org)
- Independent Alice (thronevintage.wordpress.com)
- Romania mania (chicagoreader.com)
- Through the high tech looking glass … (taochildseyes.wordpress.com)
- Down the Rabbit Hole (atlanticmo.blogspot.com)
- Alice Au Pays Des Merveilles (auxpaysdesmerveilles.wordpress.com)