NEW YORK CITY: Dramatic events happen every night (through April 8) in the Murray Hill district of New York City on the corner of Third Avenue and East 38th Street. Thing this, they happen out of earshot. You can make out parts of what’s happening, but it is unclear how all of it narratively connects.
In The Window, a site-specific performance that unravels in the storefront gallery of the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York, passersby are struck by the spectacle of what they see as they go home from work, from dinner at a restaurant or from happy-hour. They linger for a few moments. They are amused by what they see. Then they move on to go about the rest of their evening.
In the first window, we see a sparkling white hospital room. A curly-haired guy in white pajamas lying on a bed extends his arm to reach out for a bottle of pills. He is unable to grab the medicine on the white cabinet though. It is too far away. There are no nurses to help him. The poor guy, as if fighting for dear life, strains to put out his hand until he falls off the bed. He proceeds to crawl on the floor. The scene shifts to another dramatic scene in the second window where a mother figure was mixing sugar, eggs and flour in a bowl. The guy (still in the same pj’s) is now squatting on bare feet. He sits prostrated beside a looming male figure with his back facing us. Next thing you know, he grabs the second guy’s legs, as if asking for forgiveness or begging him not to leave. It’s hard to know.
This second gallery space is a darker, moodier affair. Atmospherically designed by Obie Award winner Nic Ularu (Painted Snake in a Painted Chair), this orange-lit living room places a draped chair in the foreground. A stormy, midnight-blue-absinthe-green glow emanates from a wide projection screen at the back of the room. Random phrases and dialogues float above our protagonist’s head. George Clooney‘s name flickers, at one point. “I’m so unhappy” reads another thought balloon.
Cut to a birthday party. With a look of bewilderment on his face, our guy is flanked by two people, both wearing pointy-headed party hats. The mother figure offers a cake. The father figure, slumped on the chair, holds out a gift. I won’t spoil the grisly surprise by naming exactly what is inside the box. I will say that, when you see it, you will instantly understand why he doesn’t eat the birthday cake.
If you hang out for the full 20 minutes that it takes to complete this muffled play (performed numerous times from 7:30 to 10:00 pm), you’ll come upon a sheet of paper with program details. Ana Mărgineanu, a Romanian theater and television director, conceived and staged The Window as a site-specific installation performance. There is a script, entitled “I was just thinking . . . ,” written by Obie-winning playwright Samuel D. Hunter (A Bright New Boise). The able performers are Jake Roa, Calaine Schafer, Jessie Komitor, and James “Face” Yu, with choreography by Melanie S. Armer, lighting by Christopher Weston, and video by Igor Molochevski and Masha Pekurovsky. Save for a description of this conceptual project, there is no synopsis or character breakdown.
I see The Window as a time-based installation that strolls into the realm of performance design. However, I reserve a final judgment until I see the next Window iteration: a collaboration between playwright Saviana Stănescu and designer Daniela Codarcea Kamiliotis in May, also directed by Mărgineanu. I withhold a formal evaluation for the same reason that “I was just thinking . . . ” withholds dramaturgical information from its audiences on the sidewalk. The Window is a conceptual work-in-progress. The way I see it Hunter’s play takes place at the precipice of a mortal existence. Its plot encapsulates the last gasp of a sick man. Dying, he flashes back to his childhood and his adulthood. The play is reflective in nature. It’s tricky, because the scenes it plays out behind the windows need to be strange enough to grab the attention of a passerby, but it cannot be so outlandishly bizarre that you would laugh it off and dismiss it.
The Romanian-born Mărgineanu is presently one of New York’s reigning queens of hyper-intimate one-shot-only conceptually-based theater. Her 20-minute Hotel Project (co-directed with Tamilla Woodard) is adapted for local hotels and takes in just one audience member at a time. The premise of her 10-minute Long Distance Affair is that each audience member enters a space with up to nine computer terminals. At each terminal, Skype connects the audience member to a performer in another part of the world. The beauty of “I was just thinking . . . ” is that it communicates, even though it does not grab you by the throat and it does not answer all your questions. Still I wish it deployed more theatrical devices to force more people to gather around it, since in this specific case the audience is not captive, and its real obstacle is the fickleness of an apathetic mass public. If I did not come with the intention of writing about The Window, I am not sure if I would have given it more than a passing glance. Since I did have a goal in mind, I confess that it did not fill me with a gaping yearning. I suppose I wanted it to leave me with a Dickensian curiosity: a nose-pressed-to-the-glass-windows sort of hunger. If anything, “I was just thinking . . . ” puts you in an Olympian frame of mind. That sense of remove, that feeling of light inscrutability, is what signals through the birthday cake’s flames.
Since you can’t hear the text or judge the full extent of the actors’ performances (beyond their wonderful expressiveness), the show turns out to be a small victory for imaginative design over the dominance of language or the tyranny of direction. The Window succeeds in its creative transformation of an otherwise nondescript building space that is normally used as a bookstore, a reception area or a meeting place. If you did know that there is a Romanian consulate office and cultural services in that corner of the neighborhood, you definitely will remember that piece of information the next time you pass by.
Every design element in The Window (the mannequin inside the white blanket, the baking ingredients on the window sill, the whorl of projection stimuli) conspires to transmit a narrative, even if the creators don’t care to pop the bubble and spell out everything. That belief in the power of the story is what distinguishes The Window from other attention-getting simulacra in New York, such as Times Square and the boutiques of Fifth Avenue. And it’s not just the hot-and-cold contrast of the two galleries that strike the eye and mind. The Window strikes a subtler bargain with spectacle. Pay attention to madcap goings-on inside the slim hallway behind the glass door in between those two windows. You will bear witness to the droll comedy of a middle-class life spent pushing a lot of papers — an ordinary life, come to think of it, not unlike the lives of most of us working stiffs trapped in an urban rat race. –RG
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