Editors' pick

The Super Spectacular Dada Adventures of Hugo Ball

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The Super Spectacular Dada Adventures of Hugo Ball photo
Photo by Rachel Parks

Editorial Review

Capital Fringe Festival: ‘Hugo Ball: A Super Spectacular Dada Adventure’

By Maura Judkis
Wednesday, July 13, 2011

When the emcee of “Hugo Ball: A Super Spectacular Dada Adventure” holds up a title card for “Dada Chaos,” it’s the cue for members of the Pointless Theatre Company to devolve into their most absurd tableau yet. To a quickening drumbeat, they skip, strip, play the tambourine, sing nonsense words, stuff their mouths with marshmallows and wrap themselves in ribbons, while one member of the company screams, “This is not a dada show!”

Whether or not you take his word for it, the most surprising thing about “Hugo Ball” is that this is only one segment in a play that — Fringe being Fringe — could have been composed of nothing else. “Hugo Ball” strikes the right balance between historical tribute and yell-your-lungs-out nonsense sound poem in its homage to the founder of the dada movement.

Ball, famous for choosing the name dada for the movement at random from a dictionary, wrote the 1916 manifesto for the anti-art, antiwar movement that rejected all convention, including language. Dada poems of made-up words are a portion of the dialogue, but songs, dance and dialogue help the audience keep up with Ball’s biography. In between, there are ghoulish parades of masked figures, live improvised drumming by Bob Manzo, who is covered in body paint, and dozens of handmade puppets and masks.

Designer Patti Kalil studied dada puppetry and has armed her performers with charming renditions of artist Sophie Taeuber’s Hopi masks and marionettes, as well as re-creations of dadaist self-portraits as masks to represent the major players in Cabaret Voltaire. Kalil even accommodated dada painters’ motif of prosthetic legs, a response to the casualties of war. And because Ball once said, “Men have been confused with machines,” a tin-can clattering parade of robots marches by, snapping a pair of metal jaws before they’re dispatched to insult audience members with slurs such as, “Your mother was a hermaphrodite,” and “You must have failed your SATs.”

If it seems a bit too much to take — dada isn’t for everyone, particularly people who value narrative — the GoldHeads, a pair of actors wearing Mickey Mouse-hand gloves, are sent in periodically to articulate the audience’s confusion and assumptions. Frank Lightsaber and Sarah Wilby are the standout performers, bandying about the -isms and -ists that dada may or may not be: Brechtian? Wagnerian? Marxist? Modernist? “I know exactly what’s going on,” they say, which elicits a guilty laugh from the rest of us, who simultaneously agree and still don’t have a clue.