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A CurtainUp Review

By Les Gutman

The reputation of Target Margin Theater, which was founded in 1991, has been built almost entirely on its iconoclastic but intellectually honest reïnterpretations of "classics". For its ninth season, the company shifts gears and devotes itself entirely to the staging of new plays. Perhaps it's a needed break, perhaps a catharsis. 

Whatever the reason, this initial premiere is something of a letdown. While the powerful raw materials Target Margin brings to the table are still much in evidence, the play itself is a mixing bowl of ideas that lack a unifying thrust and its discordance deprives it of any means of emotional (or spiritual) attachment. 
The play's title refers to a concept of Tibetan Buddhism that involves "ephemeral creations of the mind". It is steeped in tantric mysticism, and seems to hold many notions we might otherwise call existential, at least as developed by playwright Todd Alcott. ("You say it's a table.... Prove it.") These ideas seem well paired with director David Herskovits's penchant for neo-Brechtian performance, conjured up by having actors and stage hands roaming the set and interacting with one another in between scenes. But this approach also has the effect of reïnforcing rather than offsetting the lack of connection we feel with Alcott's characters. The sort of deconstruction Target Margin clearly enjoys, which has been so successful in reïlluminating works of Shakespeare, Chekhov and others, does not operate to good effect in Tulpa, where we have no pre-conceptions of which to be disabused. Here, our need is to be pulled in. We are not.

Alcott has essentially written what could be called an East Village slice-of-life play onto which he has grafted a subplot involving a mysterious woman, Lareine (Melody Cooper), who possesses "powers".  An inter-racial lesbian couple living on Avenue C, Soph (Mary Neufeld) and Pag (Lenore Pemberton) are constructed in pure stereotype. Soph is a tenured economics professor; the younger Pag, an artist. Soph pines for a bit of nature; Pag is enthralled with city life. Their neighborhood is a curiously pre-Giuliani melange of street noise: car alarms, shootings and so on. Louisa Thompson has designed their long ago worn-out apartment in a splendid array of detritus, adding to it the production's single most clever touch, a family of live pigeons perched outside the apartment's window.  

At her boss's request, Soph agrees to put up Lareine while she is visiting New York. Called everything from a "crackpot" to an "ancient man of wisdom," Lareine's a cross between Uri Geller (for her first trick, her mind bends a fork) and Dionne Warwick, spouting a philosophy that veers from denying the existence of reality (it's just the manipulation of electrons) to describing New Yorkers as "treading water in a toilet" to simply demonstrating the power of suggestion. Soon enough, she brings a (stereotypical) twelve-year old prostitute, Ida (Kavitha Ramachandran), to the apartment. When a pimp named Rex (Yuri Skujins) comes looking for Ida, and a bounty hunter named Job (Chuck Montgomery) starts searching for Lareine, many acts of violence (including some very loud gunshots of which the audience is forewarned) and several thematically laced "identification" issues ensue, followed by a conclusion that, I suppose, could be called religious. 

Surprisingly enough, notwithstanding the play's weaknesses, the cast shines. Without exception, performances are precisely on target and disciplined. Mary Neufeld could have walked out of a lecture hall and onto the stage. A bit of vacillation peeks out from behind both her professorial demeanor and the flannel shirt over which Meredith Palin has fitted an argyle vest. Lenore Pemberton's Pag plays in perfect counterpoint: more quixotic, less attentive, sufficiently focused on her "art" that she honestly doesn't notice that she's getting orange paint on just about everything. Melody Cooper finds a certain forceful serenity with which to portray Lareine so that she is more mysterious than creepy, and more believable than some of the lines she is called upon to recite would suggest. 

The other three actors make equally sound choices. Kavitha Ramachandran finds the child in Ida, even at her most street-tough moments; Yuri Skujins makes Rex as frightening as he is loathsome and ridiculous; and Chuck Montgomery composes a version of a B-movie character that evokes both the grim reaper and a hit man.

There's a lack of conviction in this play that makes one wonder where Todd Alcott was trying to take us. It was a painless journey, but not a rewarding one. Perhaps he got so caught up in his religion of the moment that he figured we could create our own reality. If only we'd free our minds. 

By Todd Alcott

Directed by David Herskovits
with Melody Cooper, Chuck Montgomery, Mary Neufeld, Lenore Pemberton, Kavitha Ramachandran and Yuri Skujins
Set Design: Louisa Thompson
Lighting Design: Lenore Doxsee
Costume Design: Meredith Palin
Sound Design: Tim Schellenbaum
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes with no intermission 
A production of Target Margin Theater
Here Arts Center, 145 Avenue of the Americas (Spring/Dominick) (212) 647-0202 
Opened October 19, 1999 Closing November 6, 1999 
Seen October 16, 1999 and reviewed by Les Gutman October 20, 1999

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