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A CurtainUp Review

Automatic Earth
By Chloe Veltman

No one ever really finds out how Vining Hamke gets a pitch-fork stuck in his temples at the start of Kevin Cunningham's Automatic Earth. Limbs twitching involuntarily like a crucified stick insect, Vining's nasty 'head-ache' subsides to a medicinal cocktail of chaotic landscapes and seismic poetry.

Incarcerated in a drab mental institution, Vining sits quietly writing while bedlam rampages around him. As Vining, P J Sosko nebulously hangs between child and adult states. Unflamboyant yet self-possessed, the actor controls the space through the smallest gesture - a flick of the wrist or the stroke of a pen. As his fellow inmates run amok cacophonously, laconic wardens smirk at their latest patient's silent scrawlings. Finally Vining speaks: his utopian thoughts barely intelligible beneath a disjointed gurgle. Loony though he seems, he is released back into the world, where the frenetic noise and movement of the mentally disturbed finds a natural counterpart in the chaos outside.

Roaming incoherently about, but subconsciously in search of some intangible ideal, Vining develops a romance with a plucky hustler, Chester. Dressed in a black leather tube and thumping boots, Sara Parry brings something emphatic to the tired 90s 'hooker-with-a-heart' clich‚, as depicted by the likes of Elisabeth Shue in Leaving Las Vegas. Delivering Cunningham's prose with unbrittle frankness, she balances sexiness with vulgarity. We feel for her, without feeling sorry for her.

The relationship develops rather jerkily, from Chester's initial fear of the mad quasi-Beat-poetry-spouting intruder to reconciliation, lust in a waste-strewn shack, and Chester's decision to leave. Through all of this, Vining gradually recovers his normal speaking voice (a relief after his monotonous post-traumatic bray), and heightens his sapphic powers.

Jerry, a nonchalant junkie with an eye for poetry, efficiently gives himself a hit and recognizes genius. Falling into heroin-heaven during an encounter with the wandering Vining, Jerry awakes to find the poet gone, but reads a paper he has left behind. Slack-faced and pot-bellied, Stephen Payne turns a flabby old man into a witty prophet. Reminiscent of Macbeth's Porter, with blustering comedy and unnerving insight, Jerry's incredulous monologue wonders not at Vining's hippy words, but at the beauty of his poetic structure. "A sestina!" he stammers, wild-eyed. "A fuckin' double-helix!"

Form underpins poetry as much as it underscores nature in Cunningham's world. Teddy Jefferson's designs contribute to a giant organic structure, operating within and beyond the rules of human imposition. A giant swirl ingrained on the shiny floor recapitulates the pattern of a spiraling staircase to one side of the stage. A screen projecting cascading images by Wild Kind of tornadoes, cloudscapes, writhing larvae and tightly-arranged cells transforms in time to Brian Dewan's undulating music. Cristina Ruales' costumes echo the human need for order in the patients' dirty hospital fatigues. The very structure of the play itself, with scenes from Vining's story interpolated by short philosophical interludes, respects some Grand Design.

But beyond Cunningham's poetic landscape, Rick Mordecon's thoughtful orchestration threatens the Arcadian texture. The ensemble of mental patients remains a constant presence on stage, nagging ceaselessly at our peripheral vision. Silent in the shadows, but constantly twitching, rocking or nodding, the group is irritatingly extraneous to the main plot, while serving as a reminder of disorder.

As the Narrator, Vera Beren bridges the worlds of harmony and disarray. Stepping swiftly over the writhing Vining at the start of the play in a haute-couture button-down gown, she rivals Louise Fletcher's Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest for austerity. But as the play continues, she gradually falls into a state of dishabille. During the love scene between Chester and Vining, for example, this high priestess of nature and beatific weather-girl fondles the curving banisters in nothing but a creamy negligee and cupid's bow leer. Beren's voice takes the elasticity of Cunningham's language to extremes, so sonorous at times that she sounds like a preacher or bard. Alternately she turns sassy, eulogizing about trees then, with an irreverent nudge of her cheeks to the crowd, carelessly admitting, "still they remain wooden planks, holding up my ass."

In Vining's final unfathomable monologue the hurricane swirling on the screen throughout the play explodes on stage. Chaos theory seals the link between the world outside and the landscape inside Vining's head. While no amount of explaining clarifies the mystery behind Vining's accident with the pitch-fork, the origin of the hurricane is unpredictable but clear: It started with the burp of a fat green frog. Both Art Theatre and Fart Theatre, Automatic Earth approaches Total Theatre.

Written by Kevin Cunningham
Directed by Rick Mordecon
With Alex P Baack, Travis Baker, Vera Beren, James Dickson, Glen Gehweiller, Mark Hirschfield, Sara Parry, Stephen Payne, Simon Petrie, Connie Rotunda, James Saidy, Santos, Eric Dean Scott, P J Sosko, C P Thornhill, Antonio Yepis
Set Design: Teddy Jefferson
Costume Design: Cristina Ruales
Lighting Design: Howard Thies
Video Design: Wild Kind
Composer: Brian Dewan
Sound Design: John Collins
The Signature Theater, 555 West 42nd Street, New York (212/244/PLAY)
Performances 7/15/99 - 8/1/99
Reviewed by Chloe Veltman, based on 7/14 performance

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