Volume 19 • Issue 3 | May 2 - 8, 2006

Photo by Jim Baldassare

Elizabeth Norment watches herself on stage, one of the many ways in which the multimedia theater at the new 3LD Art & Technology Center enhances Sheila Callaghan’s surreal play, “Dead City.”

Multimedia production brings ‘Dead City’ to life

By Nicole Davis

There is a reason I’ve not yet tackled James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” and it’s passages like this, selected at random from the Modern Library edition on my bookshelf:

Morose delectation Aquinas tunabelly calls this, frate porcoospino. Unfallen Adam rode and not rutted. Call away let him: thy quarrons dainty is. Language no white worse than his. Monkwords, marybeads jabber on their girdles: rogueworks, tough nuggets patter in their pockets.

All this for a book whose storyline traces one day in the life of a Leopold Bloom, and his constant runnings-in with one Stephen Dedalus? Its top ranking on the Modern Library’s list of the best 20th-century novels written in English notwithstanding, “Ulysses” still doesn’t seem worth the effort, but there is a much more accessible riff on the old experimental opus now playing Downtown at the new 3LD Art & Technology Center at 80 Greenwich Street. Written by Sheila Callaghan, who Time Out New York just deemed a playwright to watch, “Dead City” traces the day in the life of 40-something Samantha Blossom, and her constant runnings-in with 22-year-old Jewel Jupiter. Joyce’s Dublin setting is switched here for New York City, which is creatively depicted in 3LD’s multimedia theater.

The play opens onto a minimal set, where a time and date stamp is projected onto a wall: “June 17, 2004—The day after,” along with information on the scene’s exact location in the city: Tribeca, on the pedestrian path along the West Side Highway. The black, strong, tough-talking Jupiter (April Matthis), walks to the middle of the stage clutching a McDonald’s bag and delivers a stream-of- consciousness rant in the style of slam poetry:

Got my Patti Smith walk my Patti Smith knees
The Husdon choking up its morning rot
Momma stopped smoking but her lungs did not

Just as you’re thinking, ‘oh no, not another experimental opus,’ the play assumes on its own, enchanting logic as it progresses onto the day in question: “June 16, 2004—The day before” at 8 am in the tidy Upper East Side apartment of Samantha Blossom, as she prepares her morning coffee. A public radio host from off stage describes the weather for the day and then quickly launches into the unexpected, surreal sort of exchange that comes to dominate “Dead City.” He begins to talk directly to Samantha, announcing, “In today’s news, Samantha Blossom is preparing a breakfast tray for her lovely sleepy husband. He was out so late last night...” Smartly dressed with perfectly tousled blonde hair, Samantha, played by Elizabeth Norment, looks up for a moment, and her face twists into a slight grimace. She’s obviously hanging onto that unfinished thought. Yes he was out late last night—but where? She finishes preparing breakfast as Gabriel still sleeps a few feet away with a mask pulled over his eyes, then sorts through his morning mail. One letter in particular stands out—a gold envelope that is scented and addressed in a way that clearly says “mistress.” The announcer, who by now doubles as the voice of Samantha’s own paranoid thoughts, tells her “Shake it off woman... deep breath. Deliver that letter.”

Such is our introduction to the first worry that torments poor Samantha as she navigates this day, the 22nd birthday of her dead son Zachary. (Yet another riff on “Ulysses,” in which Leopold Bloom contemplates the loss of his son, who, had he not died 11 days after his birth, would have been nearly 11 on June 16, 1904.) Time ticks on, and we follow her from a chance encounter on the street to the funeral of a friend, learning along the way that Jupiter, who we first saw ranting about a sausage egg and cheese and her mother’s lungs, was a child prodigy whose poem about a dead moth won her a prestigious international award—a hilarious detail that makes Jupiter’s initial, hysterical rant less off-putting. Her mother’s recent death, however, has sent her into a tailspin, and for the rest of the play, we watch as the lives of these two grieving women intersect.

Many of the meeting points are improbable — they bump into each other in a magazine office, a library, a hospital, even a Meatpacking District club. But throughout these oftentimes amusing scenes — the tiny, blonde Shannon Burkett in particular lights up the stage like 100-watt light bulb no matter what character she embodies— we hear the characters’ internal thoughts, fears, and desires via some highly imaginative staging.

The most inventive way we get to eavesdrop on Samantha’s thoughts is through the use of words projected onto a screen during her visit to an Internet cafe. As she types, we see the message she composes to her online lover as she crafts it, deletes it, then crafts it again before hitting send. Another time, phrases and questions like “what if she stays more than a night?” scroll down behind Samantha and Jupiter as they stand in Samantha’s kitchen, the last chance encounter they have before the play’s end, and the day after —June 17, 2004, Tribeca, on the pedestrian path along the West Side Highway — begins.

For all the high-tech tricks, it’s these entrees into the characters’ interior lives that help to draw us in and make us feel deeply about these women, in particular Samantha, in a way that you wouldn’t expect from such a dreamy, multimedia play. There are some scenes and minor casting decisions that distract—Elizabeth Norment plays the cynical, hurt half of an estranged couple remarkably, but it’s hard to believe that the younger-looking Peter Rini has really weathered the same painful past as she. And while the multimedia renderings of city scenes allow us to travel everywhere from a Hudson River rendevous to a Midtown cafe, there are some scenes—like one that occurs in outer space—that make the surrealness of “Dead City” a wee too childlike. Still, as the locations change and the characters flit around town, we arrive at Jupiter and Samantha and finally, even Gabriel’s central struggle: being understood in a world in which we are often not heard, or choose not to say what is on our minds. In the end, how they move beyond this emotional stasis will move you, too.

“Dead City.” Written by Sheila Callaghan. Directed by Daniella Topol. Through June 24 at 3LD Art & Technology Center, 80 Greenwich Street. For tickets, visit www.3leggeddog.org or call 212-645-0374.


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