Thursday, April 21, 2011

Barak Marshall's Monger Sells Ideas with High Energy

There’s the world, says choreographer Barak Marshall, with all its social inequities, hard-scrabble struggles and heartless contradictions. And then there’s a person's heritage -- a dual one in the case of this native Angeleno whose mother is the former Yemeni star of Inbal Dance Theater and whose father hails from the Bronx. In Monger, the piece danced by Marshall’s Israeli troupe at UCLA’s Royce Hall in its L.A. Premiere on April 9, we find them both -- societal vagaries and his own cultural heritage -- framed in the dark downstairs quarters of humbled, obedient servants answering their mistress’s bell.

We hear her clicking footsteps through the floor boards and a leak dripping from the interior plumbing -- all of it fearsome and ominous. We hear those solemn, ting-a-ling attention calls, followed by the employer’s amplified voice delivering orders. We see the listeners below gather like frightened prisoners as one of them replies to those orders and apologizes for any infraction previously committed.

But all hell breaks loose after the duties are fulfilled. No longer supplicants, these workers show their raging side; through hyperkinetic, in-your-face movement, they spill agression in forcefully rhythmic low squats and pungently pithy gestures plotted as a convulsive step-per-beat -- all set to a raucous sound score pieced together from Middle Eastern rock and Klezmer bacchanales. At intervals it stops to embrace American pop ballads and ‘50s swing, and, yes, even Handel and Verdi.

Because, after all, there is a lyrical component to life, even in the worst of circumstances. For that, Marshall turns to an aptly balletic Traviata excerpt, in this case, the terminally tubercular Violetta sadly reciting Alfredo’s love letter to her. (Remember, she is of the underclass as well, a courtesan who would bring dishonor to a “good” family, so the episode is thematically akin).

And then there’s the curious sleight-of-hand image he constructs of three women clutching their babies, born in the backstairs, away from public view. Also, there’s the outright comic cross-dressing vignette that brilliantly makes two seated men into three figures, one of them a woman. Interspersed are choice tidbits like commercials for Manischewitz as delivered on NPR’s Yiddish Radio Project and spoken with laughably perfect English diction.

No doubt, the choreographer boasts endless sources of material that inspire him, though, possibly, he might want to limit his palette somewhat.

And while the work may not boast the nuanced stratification seen in Bob Altman’s Gosford Park or the grim sado-masochism of Jean Genet’s The Maids (both cited in the program notes as its basis) there’s a huge inventory here of vulnerability, helplessness, and finally revolt.

Still, it’s subterranean anger that has a field day in Monger, which in the spirit of fish-sellers and war-makers, is no subtle business. Brutish, it curiously resembles an aspect of Israeli culture: argumentative, unafraid of loud debate. The national reputation is built on this stuff, as with the Israeli Philharmonic, for example, that marvelously irascible band of players.

Monger shows a tender nostalgia, though, as it ends. The ballad “Close Your Eyes,” led us out the door, with a golden-oldie male voice poised in the air, gently floating above all that had preceded it.

Photos by Gadi Dragon, used by permission.

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