February has been a pretty impressive month for the Foundry Theatre: they’ve premiered a new production, Telephone, at an off-Broadway venue; they have David Greenspan performing a Gertrude Stein lecture for a very limited run; and they’re continuing a series of panel discussions, titled Out of the Global City, which explores some of the major social issues currently confronting New York.
Last week, I stopped in to see Telephone in the West Village. This new piece takes the form of a triptych, written by poet Ariana Reines and inspired by Avital Ronell’s circuitous book, The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech. Like most of the Foundry’s repertoire, this is not your typical piece of theater.
The first section of the play is a vaguely vaudevillian rematch between Alexander Graham Bell (Gibson Frazier) and his assistant Thomas A. Watson (Matthew Dellpina). The pair toured the U.S. in the early 1900s demonstrating Bell’s new telephone for audiences, often with Watson receiving calls from other rooms or other cities. Reines and director Ken Rus Schmoll tease out a bit of the fun in these demonstrations and highlight the sense of distance and disconnect that phone conversations and technological advances can result in.
The second section features actress Birgit Huppuch playing Miss St., aka Babette S., a schizophrenic patient of Carl Jung. Reines quotes directly from Babette’s case history during this manic, ear-ringing tirade, and there isn’t a single moment throughout in which you forget that Huppuch is performing live. It’s impossible to follow the mad rant in its entirety, as oblique scraps of language pull you into one line or another, before Huppuch shoots off in some other direction — how she manages to channel and sustain such mad gab is beyond me. Precision, as someone who is a great fan of scrappy theater can say with great affection, is not something at which most fringe theater companies excel. Every one of Huppuch’s gestures, expressions and breaths seems perfectly coordinated to the flying syllables. Her performance is a remarkable achievement, and she seems to have had a very strong director in Schmoll.
The final section of the piece has a much slower tempo, consisting of a series of seemingly mundane exchanges between lovers. The barely-there lights of this section leave your eyes searching the shadows, an effective visual metaphor for the way we often grope for connections to those closest to us.
Your ears will likely ring a bit at the end of the show; there are so many words to keep track of they quickly begin to wash over you — a pleasant shower at first, then a torrent, and then a light trickle. But the words seem inconsequential, mirroring the overflow in many of our lives these days: words in our inboxes, in our ears, out of phones, televisions, newspapers, web pages.
With Telephone, the Foundry has once again tapped into the undercurrent that’s been coursing through theater for a while now. It seems to come from a desire for theater to be a real experience, to stop pretending or accepting status as a poor cousin of cinema, to insist upon the active attention, if not participation, of the audience. There have been plenty of innovators in the past who’ve sought and achieved similar goals, but the Foundry seems to be tapping into something new, even as they borrow from the old.