The Bushwhack Series, which recently concluded a two week run at the Bushwick Starr, is one of those rare instances where the producers of the series truly aren't sure what they are going to end up with when rehearsals begin, or even on opening night. The annual series, which showcases both new and tried talent throughout the Bushwick area, features an eclectic mixture of styles and mediums, ranging from sci-fi theater noir to campy dance numbers, and though all share common threads of exploration and challenge, there truly is no binding element. But this isn't something that holds the series back. Rather, it catapults things forward as each new piece provides a different set of challenges for the audience to mull over and conquer. Some pieces get bogged down by over-complication as the ideas they explore overpower the performance and become too big for the tight stage. But for the most part the evening stays true to its grass-roots and never tries to be anything that it's not. It's an opportunity for young artists to showcase works that are near to their hearts, and as always at the Starr, the passion shows.
Undoubtedly, the highlights of the night are the puppet MC, and b-boy, hip-hop-influenced dance choreogrphy in two acts. Amidst all the text, the simple joy of motion is the shining star. The MC in question is a giant puppet squid who opens the night in a rambling philosophical greeting to the audience—a dare almost, to try and understand what they might see. Needless to say, the audience is rapt, more so than in the following pieces, and there's a sense of palpable anticipation during this rap. The sight of a talking five-feet-tall pink squid holding a couple cans of Bud (a squid can out-fist us by 6 cans of beer, remember) about 12 feet above the ground in a makeshift fish tank just to the right of the tech booth at the Starr is spectacular.
As the night progresses the squid becomes increasingly inebriated, his musings growing more haphazard and unintelligible, until he breaks into a rolling blues-influenced dirge about his baby. Reggie Watts, known across the US and much of Europe for his bizarre set pieces and comedic influence in mainstream television (he's done work for HBO and The Yes Men), who voices the squid, evokes a smooth-talking hep cat from the Fitzgerald era while Matt Brooks's puppetry is seamless. There's a certain camaraderie between audience and cephalopod as philosophical musing gives way to the urge to just tip back your beer and boogie.
Though none of the audience got up and boogied, the rest of the night save one or two pieces has a distinctly movement-oriented feel. The first piece after meeting the squid, NMQP, mixes elegant ballet and complicated b-boy stalls and holds. Set the to the music of Nina Simone and performed and choreographed by Ephrat Asherie, this one woman combination of styles uses the entire stage and a lot of air space. The elegant beauty of the balletic and jazz-inspired combinations contrasts pleasantly with the technical and impossible feats of strength associated with the b-boy styles incorporated. Asherie also choreographed and danced in A House is Not A Home, an allegory for what might happen in the down time at a brothel set to a rolling and poignant night club beat—the stage virtually shakes with the force and passion of the staccato dance movements. The standouts are Asherie and Big Tara, a 6-and-a-half-foot-tall black man who could have been a linebacker for the Eagles but instead performs dressed in a black lace flapper dress replete with pearls and tiara. The movements are ambitious and taken in rounds, much like a breaking cypher, but assuredly with roots in in Vogueing and what is less commonly known as Whacking (whether acknowledged or not, though given Asherie's resume, I'm sure it's intentional).
Mnemonic 1.0 was wholly conceived and performed by Chloe Bass in the span of the rehearsal time, with emphasis on the fact that no work was done on the piece outside the walls of 207 Starr Street. The performance piece moves a bit slowly and explores memory in both the simplest and most complicated of terms, a voyage into the question of questions: "Why are we here?" Though the ideas are all there, and nicely packaged, it's hard to see the whole framework come to any sort of fruition that's not just a self-indulgent reason to hang memories on a clothes line representing a tired metaphor for how we view our lives. What stands out, however, is that the Starr ran with this piece, though it seems a little rough, along with the preceding polished dance numbers, proving once again the invaluable nature of this ever-evolving (and gentrifying) community where venues are sparse. And of course that's the beauty of a totally no-holds-barred festival like the Bushwhack Series—you truly are heading into the bush and cutting a trail through dense theatrical overgrowth with a critical machete, unsure whether what you discover will be the next big thing, or if you will even uncover anything at all.