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Theatre in Review: The Duchamp Syndrome (The Play Company/Piedad Teatro)

Antonio Vega and Omen Sade. Photo: Carol Rosegg

"Originality is overrated," says Tony, one of the creatures running around in The Duchamp Syndrome, but Antonio Vega's play is its own best refutation of that argument. I think I can safely guarantee that you've never seen anything like this oddball mélange of standup comedy, puppetry, and Kafka's Metamorphosis, all in the service of a funny, fantastical tale of an immigrant seeking his fortune in the big city.

Indeed, The Duchamp Syndrome begins with Emma Lazarus' famous poem ("Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free"); of course, it is delivered by Juan, a janitor and would-be stand-up comic, wearing one of those foam Statue of Liberty crowns favored by nine out of ten tourists, as he pushes a tiny Lady Liberty around the stage. Juan, a Mexican immigrant, is accompanied by The Shadow, a performer clad entirely in black (including ski mask), who tracks him through the show, providing silent assistance. (Before the show begins, we see The Shadow fishing in the water cooler located upstage left.) Next, Juan says, "I have stage fright. Somebody advised me to imagine my audience naked." The lights go up on the audience. "Oh, thank you, no," he adds after inspecting the crowd. "I'd rather stay frightened." Next, he announces that his mother is at this performance, but, when the lights come up on an empty seat in the front row, he selects a woman from the audience to take her place, outfitting her with a shawl and a white cane for the blind.

The theatrical fun and games continue as Juan lays down the funny/sad facts of his life in New York. He is something of a loner -- "There is no such thing as a nice, friendly New Yorker that is a very good friend of mine," he says -- but, in fact, his little world is populated with tiny, distinctive figures, including Whoo, a homeless man pushing a shopping cart; a rat who keeps trying to steal the spotlight; and Tony, a cockroach and professional comedian, who performs a startlingly bawdy (and unfunny) Redd Foxx routine. Both Vega and Omen Sade, who plays The Shadow, manipulate these tiny beings -- most of them so small that they can only be seen on the upstage video screens -- with remarkable skill. (One dizzying image features Vega sitting a desk on which sits a miniature Vega puppet at a desk, on which rests an even tinier Vega and an even tinier desk.)

When not taking advice from Tony or trying to hone his act, Juan sends his mother letters and audio tapes suggesting he has burgeoning comedy career; he also asks endlessly after his "fiancée," Maria, who never communicates with him and is frequently seen in the company of other men. Juan is also haunted by the memory of the accident, for which he feels responsible, that killed his father and left his mother blind. Thrown into a panic when his mother announces she is coming for a visit, he delegates his janitorial responsibilities to a Roomba 300 -- one of those little robotic vacuum cleaners that scatter across a floor, picking up dirt -- and works up a scheme to impress her. Taking advantage of her blindness, he delivers a standup routine to an empty room, using a little box that delivers the sounds of laughter when a button is pushed, and a version of a Duchamp wheel -- a bicycle with plastic hands attached -- that, when turned, mimics the sound of applause.

The maternal visit cues a series of revelations that set Juan free from his past, but the narrative of The Duchamp Syndrome takes a back seat to the endlessly clever use of microscopic puppets and props to create the distinctively Lilliputian world surrounding Juan. Whoo crosses the stage with his shopping cart in a snowstorm made up of bits of paper blown by a fan. A squirrel makes a surprise appearance, only to be unmasked as the rat, trying to nab some stage time. Meanwhile, the Roomba wanders the stage, hoovering up little pieces of debris. Juan's career is summed up by his frantic pursuit of a spotlight that keeps eluding him.

Rendered in words, the experience of The Duchamp Syndrome may seem awfully fey and self-reflexive, but, seeing the show at the Flea Theater, it's easy to believe that you are experiencing a performer/playwright with a fresh and distinctively theatrical sensibility. Not everything in the show works -- there are occasional dry stretches -- but for the most part, The Duchamp Syndrome, under the direction of Vega and Ana Graham, casts a welcome spell of comic enchantment. Víctor Zapatero's lighting, Graham's costumes, and the sound design by Sebastián Espinosa and Daniel Castillo (which includes the voice of Concepión Márquez as Juan's mother, plus such musical selections as "Lulu's Back in Town") are all fine. Oddly, for a show in which video figures so prominently, no video designer is credited.

Anyway, Juan, feeling like an American at last, offers the audience a happy ending -- for the low, low price of $1. Don't worry; he ends up skipping the fee. In any case, Antonio Vega is certainly worth the price of admission. -- David Barbour

(11 May 2015)

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