new york

“The Way Of How”

brooklyn academy of music

Like the flat-footed takeoff on Zen in its title, The Way of How flirts with meaning but settles for effects. Created in improvisational rehearsals by a collaborative group method, this collage of aural and visual routines consists of a series of discrete performance bits strung out like beads on a string; several of the units are intriguing in themselves, but The Way lacks a strong point of view and/or a structure that would illuminate the “why” behind its collective “how.” Subtitled “a reverie,” the piece intermittently succeeds in conjuring up various vague atmospheres, drifting moods evoked principally by the sonic underpinning of composer Paul Dresher’s meditative, minimalist score. The overall thrust of the action is described in program notes by director George Coates: “The players are introduced to each other and engage in a play of discovery analyzing their relative powers and familiarizing themselves with the ‘stuff’ of their environment.” This has the portentous ring of generalized significance, but the work as a whole has none of the specificity or linkages that would give any of its chosen terms resonance deep in the nonverbal psyche—the goal of all nonverbal, nonnarrative visual/aural theater.

Individual episodes of The Way of How offer clever, often comic, and sometimes evocative performance images. The four players—composer Dresher, tenors John Duykers and Rinde Eckert, and “movement artist” Leonard Pitt—toy with each other and with various junk props (garbage bags, balloons, plastic tubes) as if probing the “thingness” of objects and of themselves. Certain of these scenes seem like a cross between the wacky randomness of John Cage and the grimly humorous determinism of Samuel Beckett; in one, for example, the two tenors place their long plastic tubes at each of Pitt’s ears as if to fix him in place, “capturing” their audience, then sing away. Other actions hinge on gimmicklike illusions, as when a performer becomes two-faced by the use of a mask, or a man’s face is reflected onto his body at an odd angle via mirrors. There’s lots of illusionary motion, done with wheelchairs, dollies, a child’s wagon, and platforms on rollers; spacey projections of graphlike patterns and sound wave—style shapes (slides by Debra Heimerdinger, projections by Ted Heimerdinger) periodically wash over the entire playing space, transforming it into an abstract never-never land.

As if to puncture its own pretensions, The Way of How’s humor occasionally slides over into jokes of the corniest kind. This rupture of the plane of illusion is sometimes startling, as when one tenor sings the names of classical composers, all beginning with the letter B, in the styles of those composers. At other times—the “divide the audience into parts and sing along” number, say—the gamelike play is just too cute. This restless potpourri of sly wit, cornball jokes, and magical illusion is given what unity it has by Dresher’s continuous score, created in situ by an ingenious tape-loop setup which allows him to instantly repeat and develop sounds made in performance. For a finale, the softly burbling music combines with billowing scrims and huge, shadowy projections of the players to create a short spell of pure dreaminess.

Performed in various places over the last two years, The Way of How is impressive in the considerable, matter-of-fact skill of its performers, and in the way its various theatrical elements are sewn together. The collaborative group’s obviously deep pool of invention needs only strong direction to make its flowing collage into something more than an anthology of clever shticks.

John Howell