Two New York Neighborhoods Set the Stage for Decadence and Loss

Two New York Neighborhoods Set the Stage for Decadence and Loss

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What does a broken story look like? Since March the pandemic has fractured our narratives like a stone thrown at a glass vase. But two eclectic site-specific shows — the fanciful “Voyeur: The Windows of Toulouse-Lautrec” and the ruminative “Electric Feeling Maybe” — embrace the fragmentation, even confusion, that Covid has brought us, with hit or miss results.

Let’s begin with the miss. On a lifeless street of warehouses in Sunset Park, about a dozen metal folding chairs sat, spaced at least six feet apart, in front of a yellow garage door. The door rose on a small stage with blue velvet curtains, and a gaggle of actors entered and exited, offering stumbling, incomplete reflections on touch, fear and loss. So Target Margin Theater’s “Electric Feeling Maybe” is a show about — wait, let me stop right there, because, as one actor says early on, “It’s a showing, not a show.”

Cute semantics aside, the 30-minute show(ing), created collaboratively by the Target Margin team and presented outside the Doxsee, their regular home, is a series of broken reveries, fuzzy reminiscences and interrupted interactions. There’s no narrative, just the actors — who play themselves — moving to and fro, trading off their sometimes lyrical meditations.

Brief moments do stand out from the ramble: thoughts on Aeneas’s loss of his wife during the sack of Troy in “The Aeneid,” and stunning snippets of poetry, as when one cast member says, “When I shake a person’s hand I feel as though a tiny part of myself is commandeered by their touch.”

“Electric Feeling Maybe” is the culminating event in a set of pop-up storefront performances throughout Sunset Park, all under the title “Magic in Plain Sight.” (The one I saw involved neon pink rope lights, music and miming.)

But the entire production feels like a prologue, hindered by self-consciousness. Target Margin doesn’t need to follow the basics of Playwriting 101, but it does need, in the words of Hamlet’s mother, a bit more matter and less art.

The opposite could be said of Bated Breath Theater Company’s “Voyeur: The Windows of Toulouse-Lautrec,” an immersive walking-tour performance through the West Village inspired by the company’s site-specific production “Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec,” which ran inside a bar for many months starting last summer.

“Voyeur,” conceived and directed by Mara Lieberman, begins on the sidewalk across the street from a different club, the Duplex, where lovely ladies of the night, dolled up in yellow and pink, dance and pose in the French windows. We’re meant to think of the Moulin Rouge, home to the renowned French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the hedonistic painter and illustrator who captured the sensual pleasures and decadence of Parisian life.

Yes, I’m talking “Voulez-vous coucher …” and all that jazz, including visits from the green fairy. Following a violinist (Maryia Vasileuskaya) and a guide with a windup music box (Katherine Winter) — both wearing Christopher Metzger’s delectable throwback costumes — we are led down busy streets, through Washington Square Park and finally indoors, to the top floor of Judson Memorial Church for a series of performances linked by the theme of voyeurism and, ostensibly, the life of Toulouse-Lautrec.

The artist himself appears, albeit in puppet form (beautifully crafted by James Ortiz). There are some biographical tidbits, and here and there “Voyeur” touches on the exploitation of women’s bodies, but the production is more concerned with creating impressionistic dreamlike tableaus than explicating a coherent narrative.

Young versions of Toulouse-Lautrec’s parents (Marin Orlosky and Ethan Pravetz) dance with a light-up picture frame down West Eighth Street, and a woman (an unforgettable Natasha Frater) puts on a seductive performance in a storefront window, just to slump and stare vacantly when it’s all over. (The choreography is by Leila Mire and Kelsey Rondeau, with Nate Carter.)

Everywhere there are frames and canvases, miming and mirroring and silhouettes, with particularly poetic set designs by Sadra Tehrani and Ebony Burton. The result is a performance that tells a story about empathy and connection — without relying on a traditional story at all. Instead, piece by piece, we are forced to transcend our gaze and realize the humanity of the subjects of our vision.

What ended up intriguing me most about both shows was circumstantial — the variables that came with where they were performed. Target Margin’s production felt utterly local, like a collaboration with its Sunset Park community, small distractions and zooming cars and all.

Gathering in a busier part of New York, the audience at “Voyeur” became part of the spectacle; a shadow performance happening in the tented dress bottom of a roughly eight-foot-tall woman with a light-up parasol drew a crowd taking pictures and video. At the end, everyone applauded and most moved on, while a few continued to follow us.

Skaters, musicians and chess players by the Washington Arch stopped and stared as we passed, holding our plastic candles and following an imposing lamplighter in a bowler hat. A yogurt shop employee craned over the counter and through the store window to see it all better.

The hubbub brought distractions, not to mention safety concerns, as we picked up random hangers-on along the way. (Those of us in the “official” audience had our temperatures checked and provided information for possible contact tracing.)

I now suspect there are two kinds of New Yorkers: Ones who will, without any context, follow a curious group of performers through the city, and ones who will not.

I am usually the latter. But these two productions helped me understand the impulse to stop and let yourself get drawn in by a scene on the street — whether on a corner in the West Village or a garage in Sunset Park. Right now we face a stutter in our stories; our lives are interrupted. Why wouldn’t we want to step out into our city and collect all the tales we can?

Electric Feeling Maybe
Through Oct. 30 at Target Margin Theater, 232 52nd St., Brooklyn; targetmargin.org

Voyeur: The Windows of Toulouse-Lautrec
Through Nov. 22 at The Duplex, 61 Christopher St., Manhattan; unmakinglautrecplay.com

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