Sign of the times

Brüka challenges its audience’s beliefs with dance, humor, fire and song

Rated 4.0

Dave Anderson appears early in his latest project, Brüka State: Vaudeville for a Modern Age, to introduce this “play.” The production is not quite a play, not quite a musical and not quite a comedy show, he says—for lack of a more precise term, he’s dubbed it “vaudeville,” but for modern times. This is the theater of pastiche, with music, comedy, poetry, dance and skit fashioned into an at times flippant, at times deadly serious variety show.

Anderson, with his slight, sprightly frame and soft gray hair, looks up at the audience from his place in the spotlight on the simple, bare stage. In a post-Sept. 11 age of fear and doubt, he says, it’s time that theater produced something new, something challenging.

“Must we see another production of Midsummer Night’s Dream?” he asks.

This “play” is a far more earnest appropriation of vaudevillian theater than I had expected, diving right into highly charged political and religious territory with its incorporation of quotations from figures such as Albert Einstein, Walt Whitman and radical feminist Susan Sontag. Actors take turns speaking quotes and, with one or two exceptions, the deliveries were not only flawless but also infused with spunk and feeling.

The quotation segments of the play were loosely themed. Some centered on art, or war, or were made up of poetic verse, and acted as a unifying principle for the play, giving a more explicit voice to subjects—faith, politics, disillusionment—implicit in the skits.

The first act was a gorgeous and moving Middle Eastern dance performed by several Asha belly dancers. In the next act, two guitarists mounted a small stage to play Simon and Garfunkel’s “Feelin’ Groovy,” followed in a later act by John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero.” A post-intermission act featuring a reverent parody of a Grateful Dead show brought the two onstage once again for some “live Dead.” At the show I saw, the audience loved these guys—tapping their feet and, in some cases, singing along.

But the two highlights of the show were a breathtaking 10-minute long fire show that followed a Burning Man skit (particularly impressive for those who, like me, haven’t yet been initiated into the cult of Burning Man) and the ending act, in which Michael Grimm played an absolutely hilarious mime.

Brüka State‘s charm lies not only in its integration of dance, song, quotations and skit, but in its ability to evoke laughter even while challenging its audience’s political, religious and cultural ideas. For those who enjoy total cohesiveness and the tying up of loose ends, though, Brüka State may prove a little disjointed—the belly dancers, for instance, are a beautiful addition, but relate only implicitly at best to the play’s “themes.” And Grimm’s character provided a rather abrupt shift in the mood of the play, which had been lighthearted at turns, but never so full-on goofy. I would have liked to see this single “vaudevillian” character perhaps open the show as well as close it to give a sense of circularity (and another big laugh).

But perhaps perfect fluidity isn’t what we should always be looking for. Brüka State is moving, thought provoking and at times simply goofy and fun. It provides a wonderful visual spectacle and prompts its audience to cultivate a sense of wonder by reciting words like those of Picasso: "Everything is a miracle … it is a miracle one does not dissolve in one’s own bath."