Review: Hugo Ball: A Dada Puppet Adventure!!/?1!!?? at Pointless Theatre

TheatreBloom rating:

Art is sacred. Art is pointless. Pointless is art. Art is n; the fope. Fuck it. DADA! Pointless is a theatre company in DC and they’re making— performing— doing— ooh, how about unabashedly obliterating the boundaries between theatre, dance, puppetry, movement, and other performance based art forms, throwing it all in a blender, hitting hurly-whirly and splattering it all over the Trinidad Theatre of the Logan Fringe Arts Space this spring? And they’re calling it Hugo Ball: A Dada Puppet Adventure!!/?1!!?? Absolute artistic madness Directed by Matt Reckeweg and conceived— birthed— screwed into existence by Playwright David Lloyd Olson, this amalgamation of chaos is utter artistic hogwash. And I loved every minute of it. A harkened cry back to the days of collegiate bold and daring experimental ensemble pieces, Hugo Ball… is a dizzying disaster of artistic and epic proportions that should inspire you to boo and hiss, curse and fuss, laugh and cry, clutch your sides and clap your hands. It does none of those things. It does all of those things. It’s an experience that you will love to hate and hate to love. DADA!

The Pointless Ensemble in "Hugo Ball: A Dada Puppet Adventure!!/?1!!??
The Pointless Ensemble in “Hugo Ball: A Dada Puppet Adventure!!/?1!!?? Mike Laws

The insanity of Dada as a performance art form is in full bloom before the play even starts. Director Matt Reckeweg has the lobby littered with Dada-inspired pieces of art designed by the company. Once the house is open it’s no holds bar from the pre-show through to the intermission— which isn’t so much an intermission for the performers as it is a break for the audience to drain their bladders, refill them with much needed libations, and break their brains around what they are actively experiencing. If you don’t walk away from the experience with at least one good gut-busting laugh, one moment of utter confusion, feeling slightly offended at something, and desperately confused about whether you enjoyed your 85 minutes or wasted it, there’s a good chance you might not be a human being. Reckeweg captures two fantastical elements in this performance flawlessly, the first being the living essence of the Dada manifesto and the second being the social commentary as filtered through the American viewpoint lens. Reckeweg drives a hard and fast show— the pacing impossible to catch— but this keeps the ball rolling and the distortions driving.

Everyone’s takeaway from this imaginatively absurdist piece that has been penned by Playwright David Lloyd Olson is going to be different. One of the overall messages that popped out amid the throng of throw-downs and dervishes of disaster was the notion that the Great Wars scrambled all sense and logic. Dada was an echoed response of trying to rebuild sense and logic in a world that no longer made sense, but it was trying to do so with one hand blown off, total amnesia, and no blueprints. There is a great full ensemble scene guided heavily by Fight Director Lex Davis that captures this emotional energy and reflects it soundly across the performers.

Sound Designer Michael Winch along with Composer and Musical Director Aaron Bliden craft a series of soundscapes that match the sentiment of various moments of the production like a tightly snapped latex glove. Particularly during the more chaotic flashes of war, which are heightened exponentially by Lighting Designer Mary Keegan’s work, the work of Winch and Bliden stir powerful sensations among the audience. There are often so many sounds and sights occurring simultaneously that the production is perpetually teetering on the precipice of full sensory overload and aesthetic assault.

The Pointless Ensemble in "Hugo Ball: A Dada Puppet Adventure!!/?1!!??
The Pointless Ensemble in “Hugo Ball: A Dada Puppet Adventure!!/?1!!?? Mike Laws

Assisting the visual and auditory spectacle of the performance, Set, Puppet, and Mask Designer Patti Kalil gives the audience even more succulent morsels of beauty to chew upon. Kalil’s demonic masks are particularly noteworthy as they factor into the unsavory aesthetic that implodes upon the production as it progresses forward. The rolling raked stage component is a nice touch as well, providing a great trapping for the actors to play with during their “intermission.” It’s Kalil’s exterior framework of the play space— the decadent proscenium and cabaret-style fire escape that remind the audience we’re watching a play, or trying to watch one at any rate.

The best approach to the experience is to try and not make sense of things. The bits that are meant to stand out or grab your attention will stick like gum to the bottom of your shoe. Everything else is superfluous and yet somehow fitting for the performance. With an ensemble of ten performers what’s most noticeable is the full commitment that they give to the production. Fully invested in the absurdity of it all, in the hyper animation of their characters at any one moment, this group of ten actors finds exceptional ways to make themselves noticed in the vein and context of the work that they are doing.

The ensemble— Frank Cevarich, Kyra Corradin, Madeline Key, Sadie Leigh, Devin Mahoney, Hillary Morrow, Stacy Musselman, Matthew Sparacino, Scott Whalen, and Sarah Wilby— are movers. There are moments of dance, and strikingly beautiful puppetry that really draw the eye. Keeping track of who is who would require a flow chart, spotters guide, and picture map, but that would defeat the nature of the ensemble work that Pointless Theatre strives so hard to maintain. Every person has a moment for which they become noteworthy but it’s their performances together, particularly during spastic explosive moments of pandemonium, that the production should be praised for.

The Pointless Ensemble in "Hugo Ball: A Dada Puppet Adventure!!/?1!!??
The Pointless Ensemble in “Hugo Ball: A Dada Puppet Adventure!!/?1!!?? Mike Laws

Dada is not for everyone. This show is not going to be for everyone. Personally I’ve never felt something that I was so revolted by but simultaneously enjoyed so much. Reckeweg, Olson, and the entire performance ensemble as well as the production crew have captured the exacting epitome of Dada within the context of their company’s mission statement and it shows quite clearly in this piece of work. Commit to the nothingness of existence. That’s how to take this diabolically disruptive piece of— art? Theatre? Thing happening in a tiny space over the course of 85 minutes? Boo! DADA!

Running Time: Approximately 85 minutes with one intermission

Hugo Ball. A Dada Puppet Adventure!!/?1!!?? plays through May 14, 2016 at Pointless Theatre in the Trinidad Theatre of the Logan Fringe Arts Space— 1358 Florida Avenue NE in Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 733-6321 or purchase them online.

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