Susan Marshall & Company

July 6, 2007

Susan Marshall & Company

Bard Spiegeltent

Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College, NY

July 6–15, 2007

Reviewed by Elizabeth Zimmer

“Spiegel” is German for “mirror,” and a spiegeltent is a sturdy temporary structure designed to shelter drinkers while providing stylish diversions to keep them tossing back refreshments purchased at the bar. Last summer saw one installed at New York City’s South Street Seaport; this July another went up on the campus of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson. It has stained-glass windows, with mirrors installed below them and on the carved wooden pillars supporting the tent.

    As part of Bard’s celebration of composer Edward Elgar, the campus’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts commissioned choreographer Susan Marshall to produce an entertainment suitable for the high, round stage at the center of the tent, around which the audience is deployed in a couple of rows of folding chairs. Behind them are cabaret tables where people can continue drinking while watching the show. Marshall’s Sawdust Palace, a 90-minute suite of 20 “acts” ranging from live piano numbers to chicken-plucking, gave us both the superficial glamour of vaudeville showgirls and the emotional subtext apparent in her best work for the stage.

    Pianist Stephen Gosling played Elgar’s Salut d’Amour on the piano while being teased by Petra van Noort; Stephin Merritt’s The Book of Love, from the Magnetic Fields’ recording of “69 Love Songs,” undergirded a passionate duet for Joseph Poulson and Darrin M. Wright, the former in a sheer, ruffled blouse, the latter in a “wifebeater” undershirt. A sensual atmosphere thus established, Kristen Hollinsworth and Luke Miller led an apparently hypnotized van Noort around the circular room, greeting patrons who either shrank from the gesture or welcomed it. Because there was only one “wing,” making quick changes difficult, the dancers wore layered costumes, shedding one to reveal another and keep the action moving.

    The divertissements followed in duos and trios, with the occasional larger item; the material was mostly new, though one wonderful number, Tea for Two, was borrowed from Marshall’s recent Bessie-winning show Cloudless, doubled to two couples for improved visibility in the circular space. Turning a ritual of serving tea into an erotic pastime, it holds its power on a second viewing.

    The high point of the bill, to my mind, was Chicken Flicker, a sort of backstage romance for Hollinsworth and Poulson; he appeared, butcher-like, in a huge white apron, riding a stool on casters, and she wore fishnet stockings, character shoes, and swaths of black and white feather boa. She lay across his lap; he took his gloves off and plucked her feathers, to the strains of Zorba’s Dance by Mikis Theodorakis. Finishing his task, he did a triumphant “chicken dance,” while Luke Miller swept the feathers away with a chenille bedspread. This and other lengths of fringy fabric did double and triple duty throughout.

    One charming conceit followed another, from Hollinsworth sprawled atop the piano, presenting her butt as a stand for Gosling’s next rendition of Elgar, to Miller and Poulson making “body music” with their hands and various bare body parts. The few young boys in the house beamed at this one, which appealed to their raunchier instincts.

    Wright performed a star turn in Belt Man, his torso wrapped in half a dozen leather straps. Kasia Walicka Maimone, who’s been dressing Marshall’s dances for 12 years, hit the jackpot again here with one glamorous get-up after another; I cherish the vision of the tall Miller in a salmon-pink satin shorts suit, running through the house.

    A couple of the works utilized flying, the dancers dangling from rigging attached to the high center of the tent. As always, Marshall’s choreography deploys arms to powerful emotional effect; the small circular stage made “up” the direction of choice in many situations. Designed as an after-dark entertainment in a cabaret setting, Sawdust Palace suffered a bit from being viewed at a Saturday matinee, but still communicated Marshall’s trademark alchemy of gesture and feeling.

    Although designated a “world premiere,” it is likely to be tightened before it’s shown again. It’s scheduled to reappear April 9–12, 2008 at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland in College Park.