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Theatre in Review: Lula del Ray/Club Diamond (Under the Radar/Public Theater)

Top: Lula del Ray. Photo: Jeffry Shulman and Katherine Greenleaf. Bottom: Club Diamond. Photo: Kathryn Raines.

The Under the Radar Festival, that annual roundup of everything new and innovative in theatre, kicks off this year with two very different, but equally intriguing, experiments in film as theatre.

Manual Cinema, that band of artists who make magic with some of the oldest forms of projection technology, earned a Drama Desk nomination last season for Ada/Ava, a gothic tale of sisters whose relationship is not extinguished by death; its new offering, Lula del Ray, examines one adolescent girl's oddball coming of age. The title character lives somewhere in the desert, in a trailer located next door to a line of enormous radar dishes. Lula's mother keeps tabs on the vast machines, which are apparently taking in sound effects from the depths of the universe. (The action takes place in the years before the moon shot, when the idea of reaching another planet was still confined to the realm of science fiction.) The terminally bored Lula becomes obsessed with the Baden Brothers, a pair of country-western singers, whose hit single is titled "Lord, Blow the Moon Out." Lula's mother disapproves of such unscientific pursuits, and when a mother-daughter argument ends in the shattering of Lula's prized Baden Brothers disc, she runs away to the big city, in search of her singing idols.

The Manual Cinema team tells this tale in its trademark filmic manner, using a trio of old-fashioned overhead projectors to display a series of images informed by static backgrounds, paper puppets, and human shadows, the performers wearing masks and wigs to create easily recognizable silhouettes. The action is plotted out, in storyboard fashion, as a series of close-ups and long and medium shots, each new image seen from a different angle. This approach results in a series of indelible images: Lula, sitting on the edge of a radar dish, reading a magazine about outer space; a long panning shot through all four rooms of the family trailer, beginning with Lula's mother at her console and ending with Lula at a desk in her bedroom; a nightmarish city skyline dominated by billboards filled with unsettlingly cheerful ads; and Lula crawling through a theatre's duct system to reach the Baden Brothers. Almost anything a film can do, Manual Cinema can match, including a chase sequence through the halls of a big corporation. Some of the effects are remarkably subtle -- a close-up of Lula's face, with the eyelashes moving expressively, or the sudden appearance of a tiny tear.

Lula del Ray has no dialogue, but it would be a mistake to call it silent, since it features an original score by Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman with Maren Celest, Michael Hilger, and Jacob Winchester; as played on guitar, cello, and percussion, with largely wordless vocals, the accompaniment is moodily effective. The sound design, by Vegter and Kauffman, constitutes a parade of effects, including trucks, buses, radio broadcasts, ambient noises in a diner, and many more. As conceived by Julia Miller, with an original text by Brendan Hill, the tale of Lula's wanderings is consistently engaging, and, as directed and designed by Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, and Miller, there isn't a single wasted image in the telling. Charlotte Long and Sara Sawicki play Lula and her mother; each has mastered the knack of signaling an emotion with a single shadowy gesture; they are aided immensely by puppeteers Lizi Breit and Sam Deutsch. The company's work is both charmingly naïve and surprisingly sophisticated. At only 70 minutes, Lula del Ray doesn't overstay its welcome; indeed, it suggests that Manual Cinema may have many more stories to tell us.

Club Diamond begins with a fascinating bit of movie history; before the advent of talkies, Japanese movie houses featured benshi, live narrators whose storytelling skills often made them stars in their own right. The first half of this unusual entertainment features a silent American film, allegedly made in 1927 and also called Club Diamond, which tells the story of a Japanese actress who comes to New York where, absent any contacts or money, she ends up in a seedy bar, performing a dance dressed in a kimono and carrying a parasol -- a stereotypical image that contrasts markedly with her thoroughly modern style. After this humiliating episode, she returns to her dressing room, where a man is waiting; as they clink champagne flutes, he begins pawing her and the true nature of her position becomes appallingly clear.

The film that dominates this sequence is beautifully made, with one alluringly noirish image after another: the heroine in a film studio, sexily dressed and caught in a beam of light, while the camera pans up her body; a dark hotel hallway that is suddenly illuminated to reveal a wall telephone, hand railing, and enormous spider web; and the seedy hotel room furnished not with the Gideon Bible but a copy of Variety. The actress Saori Tsukada, who created the piece with the director Nikki Appino, plays the male benshi, offering commentary in Japanese along with a number of well-rendered Foley effects.

Halfway through, the benshi shuts the film down, exits, and reappears, looking much older and hauling a bike bearing a large box containing toys and candy for sale. It is many years later, after World War II, and his cinematic services are no longer required. Instead, exhibiting a series of pictures and speaking in Japanese, he retells the story in highly imaginative fashion; then, producing a homemade film projector, he shows the final scenes of the Club Diamond film, which reveals our heroine's surprising fate.

If Club Diamond is the story of the unnamed benshi and his struggle for survival, it is also in some sense a satirically overwrought comment on the strangeness felt by an unseen female narrator -- who could be Appino or Tsukada or, possibly, both -- when she emigrated from Japan to New York. (In voiceover, she recalls getting a job in an East Side joint as a B girl, hired to make conversation with the male patrons, who would then buy them drinks.) In any case, the presentation combines powerful film imagery with imaginative live performance and a stunning contribution by the violinist Tim Fain -- backed by recorded accompaniment -- of some deliciously overripe Hollywood-style movie music.

If these two pieces are typical of what is on offer, Under the Radar would seem to be having a banner year. If you plan accordingly, you can see Lula del Ray and Club Diamond on the same day, enjoying a cinematic theatrical double feature of unusual invention. -- David Barbour

(6 January 2017)

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