The day before Mt. St. Helens erupts, a reporter, a waiter, a geologist, a wannabe punk, and a guitar-slinging cowboy meet, briefly, in a diner. Then, with cinematic grace and occasionally to a live choral score, they separate and have brief and momentary encounters that are somehow more than the sum of their parts. Oh, and the volcano is represented by a dancer who tap-dances tremors and performs a molten modern dance.
Phenomenon is a stylized breakthrough in experimental theater, but restrained enough to command our attention (deservedly so), and elegant enough to be beautiful, idiosyncrasies and all. It is odd to have characters sing in a non-musical, but Phenomenon successfully defies genre with good humor, great acting, and an excellent sense of self. (At one point, the reporter sings “These are the biscuits of my heartbreak,” and the lovesick waiter replies, intentionally off-key, “I like mine with honey.”)
If the effective use of uneven tones is dissonance, Phenomenon elevates that to creative discord. The constant shift in style keeps the audience entertained and bewildered, all of which fits with the mood for this unsettling and unique day in history. However, the eruption remains secondary; its purpose is merely to parallel the dying relationship between Mary, the reporter, and her husband Mark, the geologist, as well as the burgeoning relationship between Christine, the rebel without a cause, and “the cowboy,” a rebel with one.
The volcano is a metaphor too, which only highlights Gordon Cox’s sleek dialogue—one brilliant observation is that when the mountain erupts it will not be “failing” so much as it is “succeeding.” Of course, the text itself only highlights the even sleeker direction of Alyse Rothman, who also conceived the show. Rothman uses the essentials of scene work (movement exercises) to pare down, and sculpts that into artificial-free tension and beautifully lucid moments. Nothing is one-dimensional; the entire set becomes a character, and the characters take on their environment. Passion boils and erupts in a slow and sultry pantomime of sex (far more elegant than it sounds). The chorus explodes from the set and washes away like a mudslide. And for all this avant-garde work, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen such believable, compelling acting.
Phenomenon surpasses every expectation that it sets up: more than a play about a volcano, more than a musical about love, more than performance art about estrangement. Phenomenon gets past that by reinventing the rules and remembering that no matter what life throws at us, the greatest natural disaster is, and has always been, that of the heart.
HERE Arts Center (145 Avenue of the Americas)
Tickets (212-868-4444): $18.00
Performances: Thursday – Monday @ 8:30
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.