Heart of Darkness
Mark Dendy has a lot to get off his chest; his semi-autobiographical play Labyrinth, which just ended its run at the Abrons Arts Center, is by turns exorcism, confession, and cathartic rite. He’s not happy with the way things are: the consumerism, the waste, the shallowness. The Bloombergification of New York is a particular sore point. (He’s not alone in feeling this.) But the problem runs deeper. Dendy has been forced to wrestle with the basic value of his art; even his sanity has suffered.
Dendy has been bringing his theatrical experiments to the stage since the eighties, using drag, made-up characters, dance, and twisted narratives to tweak people’s perceptions of reality and the everyday. More recently, he went “mainstream”. (An artist has to live, after all.) He made the wonderfully loopy dances for the goons in Julie Taymor’s production of The Magic Flute at the Metropolitan Opera. He choreographed Gotham Chamber Opera’s staging of Rappaccini’s Daughter, by Daniel Catán. He made dances for that most wholesome of American sex symbols, the Rockettes. All perfectly legitimate projects, but not, it seems, ones he is comfortable with. In Labyrinth, the Rockettes, in particular, become the paradigm for everything that is fucked up about his life. It’s enough to drive a downtown artist to the brink.
What is Labyrinth, exactly? Not a conventional play, but a series of monologues and set-pieces for Dendy and three other performers. A chronicle of a nervous breakdown. The British actor Stephen Donovan, haggard-eyed, stoop-shouldered, plays the part of “the shadow,” a stand-in for the main character’s Id. He snarls and spits, and never fails to remind him that everything is shit. Matthew Hardy is the fantasy, the escape, the incarnation of Dendy’s earthly desires. Hardy speaks little and dances in lovely, writhing phrases; he offers solace, serves drinks. Most impressive is Heather Christian, a multi-faceted and multi-talented musician, singer and actress in the cabaret mold. She provides the musical accompaniment, the witty lyrics, the piquant repartee. (She’s capable of a wide range of vocal effects; I only wish she used her natural voice more often. She’s too good to always be putting on other people’s voices.)
All play a part in Dendy’s tale of mental collapse set in 2012, the year of Hurricane Sandy. The biblical flood, come to wash away our sins. Labyrinth is heavy with symbolism, both religious and mythological. As in Martha Graham’s Errand into the Maze, the Minotaur’s lair—represented by a winding rope on the floor—becomes a metaphor for the darkness inside.
Things get off to a weak start. The bleak, cinder-block surroundings of Abrons’ underground theatre don’t help. Dendy fills it with junk-store bric-a-brac: a toy piano, a rickety bar, a plastic bird-cage. Rather meekly, he begins by explaining the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, translating the action to Athens, Georgia. (At this point, I think to myself: “oh no.”) But things pick up as soon as he returns in the guise of Princess Pawnie Ariadne, the first of several impersonations. Pawnie, a foul-mouthed, cross-dressing, cocaine-sniffing East Village sylph, brims with twisted wisdom and raucous vitality. She is the embodiment of the raunchy New York Dendy pines for. We’ve all met her at one time or another. Doomed but irresistible.
Other impersonations follow: Dendy’s sweet but tough southern grandmother, born Jewish but married to an anti-Semitic Christian preacher. His father, a mean, racist drunk. (The work implies that the characters are based on real people, but who knows how faithful they are.) It turns out the problem isn’t New York or the Rockettes, but the buried past, full of self-loathing and concealment.
Dendy’s remarkable ability to channel these archetypes makes up for the work’s occasional emotional and structural messiness. Labyrinth is a bit all-over-the-place. But then, the home-made feel of the project is also part of the point. Fuck professionalism and the Great White Way! One wonders how a show like this would translate to a different, less subterranean kind of setting. But in a world where Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a hit, why not?
For another take on Labyrinth, see this piece by Andrew Boynton.