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Big Dance Theater’s U.S. Debut of Supernatural Wife: Big Fun, Big Ideas

Dance review by Bess J.M. Hochstein
Rural Intelligence Arts
Photos: Cherylynn Tsushima

One thing you should know before seeing Supernatural Wife, Big Dance Theater’s take on Euripides’ sort-of tragedy Alkestis  – and you should see it—is that dance is probably the least element of this enchanting and intelligent multimedia performance. You don’t have to be familiar with Alkestis (or Alcestis, depending on the translation), because the tale is well told, in a straightforward, lively, and inventive manner.

Rural Intelligence ArtsThe work does include arresting movement, consistent body consciousness on the part of the performers, stylized nods to Greek folk dance, and many instances of attention-grabbing stillness – the corpse of Alkestis apparently suspended like a plank on the backs of two folding chairs; Hercules seeming to walk on the body of Alkestis thanks to two cleverly placed blocks; Hercules in Hades lifting the stiff-bodied Alkestis as if she is hog-tied, her flexed feet anchored to his neck – but overall, the dramatic and fun storytelling supersedes the choreography.

That’s not a bad thing. It’s a great story – after all, it has been around for nearly two thousand years – and it raises interesting questions about self sacrifice, white lies, and whether someone can be dead and not dead at the same time (think Schrödinger’s cat, a classic example of quantum mechanics).

Sounds heavy, but this production is light and filled with non-stop action and laugh-out-loud humor, with a sort of Vaudevillian air. Alkestis’ husband Admetos is played by Molly Hickok in drag; we see her transform into him on stage with help from a mini red velvet curtain behind which she magically obtains a crown, and then a mustache, both with eyebrows raised, letting the audience know she is in on the joke. The curtain is used for several other instances of stage magic, becoming the boat that ferries Alkestis across the river Styx, and her funeral shroud. Hades arrives to take Alkestis, who has chosen death to save her husband’s life, with a handcart, and repeatedly, impatiently questions her as she performs her farewell dance, “Are you done yet?” Hercules makes his entrance rolled onto the stage, banging away on a flashing drum set, using a cymbal as a dumbbell as he recounts his latest manly adventures. He reveals himself as a cocky, carousing frat boy before setting off on his heroic quest to wrestle Alkestis from Hades.

Rural Intelligence ArtsThe six performers in Supernatural Wife are all multitalented; compelling dancers, they sing like angels, posture like rock stars, slip in and out of character in an instant, and rapidly manipulate props, set elements, and electronics without a glitch. The score, men, by David Lang (who was in attendance on Thursday night, thanks no doubt to his presence in the Berkshires for the Bang on a Can Festival), worked perfectly with the performance, and the videos projected on an oval screen above the stage added further dimension.

Other inventive staging elements included the use of two small monitors with videos of children to represent Alcestis and Admetos’ son and daughter, and a large monitor rolled in on a wheelchair to stand in for Admetos’ damning father. With the addition of a one-man chorus, often seated at a control table, providing stage directions and commentary into a microphone—several others appear across the stage at opportune moments so performers can amplify specific lines of the text, deftly excerpted from a translation by poet Anne Carson—and sequences of high-energy dancing in the center of the round stageprint, the production has enough going on to feel at times like a three-ring circus taking place all at once in one ring. It warrants a second viewing to catch the many details that quickly fly by.

Big Dance Theater’s co-directors Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar were the first recipients of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award, and Supernatural Wife demonstrates again that the honor was justified. Let’s hope the relationship between the Pillow and Big Dance Theater remains strong so we can continue to see new, exciting work from this intelligent, boundary-crossing company. This Big Dance Theater production was big fun, and full of big ideas that will leave you with a big, lasting impression.

Rural Intelligence Arts
Photo: Christopher Duggan

Big Dance Theater in the Doris Duke Theatre
Now through Sunday, July 31
Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, MA

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Posted by Bess Hochstein on 07/29/11 at 02:09 AM • Permalink