Confronting the Minotaur in Manhattan during Sandy

Mark Dendy: Labyrinth

Mark Dendy, Stephen Donovan, Matthew Hardy (l to r) and Heather Christian in Mark Dendy: Labyrinth.

Mark Dendy, Stephen Donovan, Matthew Hardy (l to r) and Heather Christian in Mark Dendy: Labyrinth.

The next two weeks will close out the premiere run of Mark Dendy: Labyrinth at the Abrons Arts Center’s Underground Theater in Manhattan. Those interested in post-modern, multimedia experimental theater are well advised to attend this event in the intimate venue at the Henry Street Settlement.

The performance is part stand-up confessional, part dance, part cabaret with skits. It is the semi-fictionalized autobiography of Mark Dendy or at least the story of how artistic dread over selling out by choreographing the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall together with an overdose of anti-psychotic pills and absinthe landed him at Bellevue where he worked out his past demons (one in particular) during the ravages of Hurricane Sandy. Dendy (in “real life,” as they say) is an OBIE and Bessie Award-winning choreographer, and I suspect this play itself is further penance for the Rockettes gig, but it is highly entertaining and not a little profound.

Mark Dendy (Publicity photo).

Mark Dendy (Publicity photo).

The story is told loosely within and regularly referring to the classical story of Athens’ founder Theseus, who, if you know anything at all about him, you know this one thing: he was forced to enter King Minos’s fearful labyrinth, where none ever emerged because the journey was too complicated for the human mind and in any event lead to a ferocious demon, the bull-god Minotaur. Theseus was given a string to allow him to re-navigate the journey and once confronted with the demon used his strength and will to destroy it. And that is the journey, refashioned into a psychological journey undertaken by Dendy, who begins talking directly to the audience, telling us that he is from Athens … Georgia. The conceit, stated starkly, sounds somewhat pretentious to postmodern sensibilities so it is appropriately given a thoroughly postmodern treatment.

Matthew Hardy in rehearsal for the number "Me and My Shadow." (Photo: Marisa @RockPaper.)

Matthew Hardy in rehearsal for the number “Me and My Shadow.” (Photo: Marisa @RockPaper.)

Denby (who plays himself as Theseus) begins his journey confronting the usual irritations one encounters just walking down the street in Manhattan. With him is his superego (the “Shadow,” played by Stephen Donovan), who spews forth the hateful thoughts that goes through his mind when he sees black males, Muslims, the homeless, theater professionals that Dendy does not respect. Dendy tries to repress the thoughts and consciously repudiates them but cannot rid himself of this aspect (among others) of the demon that haunts him. Consciously Dendy tries to justify his career trajectory by acknowledging the competitive and business realities of art in corporatized New York, especially after the financial crash. But he is unconvinced himself. Dendy and his companion are occasionally joined by The Dark Companion (played and danced by Matthew Hardy), who stands in for the unknowable, variously explained as the dark matter which holds the universe together while it is flying apart or what was before the Big Bang and other unknowables. But this presence is not entirely lugubrious, as shown by the dance that introduces him—a clever duet of sorts between Handy and the shadow on the wall created by a horizontal floodlight to the Tin Pan Alley favorite “Me and My Shadow.”

Heather Christian and Stephen Donovan (Photo Marisa @RockPaper.)

Heather Christian and Stephen Donovan (Photo Marisa @RockPaper.)

In lieu of a Greek chorus is the Still Small Voice, sung by Heather Christian, who wrote the original music, sings the commentary and plays other roles, notably the therapist who tries to focus Denby on his past to root out the cause of his “psychosis.” Along the way, Dendy himself play among others a Times Square prostitute who overdoses on cocaine, his own grandmother and his father. Dendy as Theseus/himself also experiences an overdose which lands him in Bellevue. There he is administered therapy he believes he doesn’t need because as an artist he has already thoroughly examined his past and his own family and even exhibited it on stage. Meanwhile, alone he is wracked by guilt, among other things, for not dying during the 1980s AIDS crisis (although he had engaged in numerous unprotected anonymous couplings) and especially for not mourning those who did.

The therapy is somewhat ham-fisted. Rather than pursue something of a break through, the therapist adheres to her schedule and instead gives Dendy a form to fill out. The form is designed to discover how psychotic the patient is, but the questions are such that they would elicit mostly solid affirmations by any New Yorker, such as “I try very hard to please other people in order to avoid conflict, confrontation or rejection” or “Equality doesn’t exist so it’s better to be superior to other people.” (The audience is given the questionnaire in their programs.) But with the crisis of Sandy bearing down on the city and Dendy/Theseus trapped in Bellevue, he is forced to set off alone (with only the therapist’s little string) into the Labyrinth. The journey is into his past, where he again meets the grandmother who raised him, the right-wing antisemitic grandfather Baptist minister married to her and eventually his own Daddy. The trip is not altogether grim, especially because the grandmother is appealingly quirky and discloses truths ironically. The older Theseus visiting her in her mental decline discovers that she really hates green jello with marshmallows. She warns him of the dangers of lying: She has been forced to eat this for 37 years because she once utter the white lie of saying how delicious it was. Imagine, she says, what a great lie could do. But Theseus has discovered her great lie and it eventually leads him to his own Minotaur, his father.

The cast in some of their costumes. (Photos by Marisa @RockPaper.)

The cast in some of their costumes. (Photos by Marisa @RockPaper.)

Dendy’s characters are quite engaging, the scenes are brief and intercut with movement and cabaret songs and rap. Heather Christian is a quite talented theater singer. He voice is a pure soprano but capable of carrying styles from r&b to rap to “classical” commentary on Debussy and Schubert. The musical selections are one of engines that propel the piece. The other is the movements designed by Dendy as choreographer. Never lasting long enough to become cloying, they illustrate without belaboring such things as erotic writhing, psychotic despair, childhood terror.

The climax takes play as the storm (internal as well as external) reaches its crisis. But true to the postmodern sensibility it ends with a rousing finale. There may be no new truths in postmodernism but as this performance shows old truths can be repackaged in original and captivating ways. And perhaps that’s all we are left with anyway nowadays.

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