Martha Clarke, whose vers la flamme recently played the New Victory, was a mainstay of Pilobolus in its earliest, most inventive days. She specializes in wordless lyric theater, setting a blend of mime and dance to music in pursuit of heady, evocative atmosphere. Essentially, she wants to produce the effect of a poem without writing the poem. For Vers la flamme, 33 Scriabin piano pieces, with a final fillip of Rachmaninoff – played onstage by Christopher O’Riley – serve as mood music. The narrative and psychological content of Clarke’s staging, we’re told, was inspired by five Chekhov stories, including “The Lady With the Lapdog,” “The Darling,” and “Enemies.”
Clarke has thwarted her own efforts by emphasizing (in interviews and in her program notes) her desire to produce a nonliteral version of these texts – and then providing Monarch Notes synopses of them in the program, as if a Chekhov tale, essentially a revelation of character and worldview, could be reduced to its plot. Without some knowledge of the stories, of course, the spectator would be utterly baffled by the vague, redundant proceedings, which are dominated by melodramatic hysteria, vigorous simulated copulation, a comic vein alien to Chekhov, and an element of the-macabre-as-entertainment that belongs entirely to Pilobolus. But for the viewer familiar with Chekhov’s work – at once ironic and tender, detached yet utterly humane – Clarke’s spin-off is pathetically inadequate and off the mark.
Given the poverty of their material, the performers – Felix Blaska, Kate Coyne, Sean Dalal, Margie Gillis, George de la Peña, Alexandre Proia, and Paola Styron – work miracles. Jane Greenwood’s costumes, wonderful in motion as well as at rest, provide the sheer beauty and the potent suggestion Clarke aims for and fails to achieve. Oddly enough, I still admire Clarke for trying to realize her vision. Readers of Chekhov may well dismiss her results as merely decorative and manipulatively titillating. But Clarke is doing her damnedest to entice her audience into her dream.