No matter how many theatrical events you have experienced, it's unlikely that you would forget the sight of a woman in a slip being slowly and sensuously sucked into the cone of a vintage salon hair dryer. Or the gigantic white bed that serves as battlefield, mating ground, boxing ring and life raft to its eight look-alike denizens. Or the nerdy little fellow so taken with his amplified voice that he winds up a raving megalomaniac.
These are just a handful of images that appear in the work of the Margolis/Brown Adaptors, a New York-based company of "movement actors" who, over the past eight years, have won a special place in the hearts of those who like their art both wild and technically impeccable. Founded by Kari Margolis and Tony Brown, two classically trained mimes with boundary-breaking souls, the group first won critical acclaim for "Autobahn," a hilarious and troubling look at the way technology seduces and destroys.
Through a combination of movement, gesture, music, video, still photography, live and recorded music and some of the world's cleverest props and sets, Margolis and Brown and their rigorously trained ensemble took spectators on a chaotic journey through a '50s-inspired landscape of Howdy Doody and Lucy, back-yard barbecues, robots and ray guns and dancing ironing boards. Next came "Suite Sixteen," a highly charged and sophisticated take on the subject of childhood, and "The Bed: Experiment One," an abstract, compact human history enacted over, on, under and around a stage-covering bed.
"We love theater as spectacle," declares Margolis. "We're hungry to incorporate everything we have at our fingertips." She is speaking from Lexington, N.Y., the site of a dairy-farm-turned-arts colony known as Arts Awareness. In an old barn transformed into a theater, she and her collaborator-husband Brown are in the process of trying out their latest evening-length opus. Entitled "Decodance: The Dilemma of Desmodus and Diphylla," the piece will be presented in Washington tonight through Friday at Mount Vernon College's Hand Chapel.
"In this piece, Tony and I play a pair of vampires on a 100-year-long date, while everything around us is decaying," Margolis explains matter-of-factly. "We're named after two species of vampire bats in South America. We're cultural vampires -- we suck on the culture. We're like these chameleons, basing our notions of romance and what we should look like on Hollywood images. And of course that clogs up the possibility of a real relationship between us."
Cinematic allusions abound. The vampires take on the slicked-back, sultry '20s look of Rudolf Valentino and Pola Negri. A short silent film is shown -- Margolis and Brown's version of "The Sheik." Fred and Ginger make an appearance, dancing together in a ballroom sequence. There's a sleazy detective type who keeps cropping up, and a starry-eyed bride and groom who weave in and out of the proceedings as well. There's also a lot of Hungarian Gypsy music, and old velvet, and "a giant pillar that's the central structure of the whole set. I have a solo on it with a red rubber ball that is somewhat like a life force. And Tony dances with a female mannequin arm that's very elusive. And he even gets to sing.
"You know, this was supposed to be the small, intimate two-person show," Margolis laughs. "We thought we were breaking away from large, group works with lots of props and costumes. But somehow it mushroomed. Now it's this huge, intimate show. My mom keeps saying, 'I thought this was supposed to be you and Tony, touring with two suitcases on a train.' "
Margolis, 35, and Brown, 38, met in the mid-'70s in the Paris studio of "new mime" guru Etienne Decroux, teacher of Marcel Marceau and other rubber-limbed notables. Brown was already immersed in the art form. Margolis had studied dance and experimental theater but discovered limitations in each.
"So there we were, studying with this 78-year-old Frenchman, a real man of the drawing room," remembers Margolis. "Classes were very -- how shall I say? -- habille'," she says, remembering the master's formality. "You wore shoes, long-sleeved leotards, the works. It was his philosophy that meant the most to us. Decroux was the first person in the dramatic-movement field who began to create a real technique and language. Ballet has gotten to where it is because it's a real science. Well, he planted the seed in our area."
According to the venerable master, articulation of the body was essential, as was the body's relationship to space. And because the human form was in itself a complete dramatic entity, no accouterments -- costumes, props, sound -- were needed. A bare stage, a simple loincloth would do.
Gradually, Margolis and Brown came to realize that accouterments meant a great deal to them. Their style was visceral, deshabille'. They loved toys, fabric, machines, all the detritus of American popular culture. They wanted to forge their own spectacular, multimedia productions. But first they needed the performing experience. And dollars. So they hit the streets.
"We were the first act ever to perform outside the Centre Pompidou," says Margolis, referring to the colossal plaza outside Paris's museum of contemporary art, which is now inhabited by an amazing assortment of entertainers and vendors. "We had this five-minute duet that we'd do 30 or 40 times a day. Then we'd go home and spend hours counting our francs."
Eventually they moved on to the boulevards of St. Tropez as well, making quite a tidy sum and honing their street smarts besides. To wit:
"One day, while we were performing, these two very drunk English guys came up behind us and starting saying things like, 'Hey, look at these hot babes.' After one of them pinched me, I decided that I'd finish the act and then kill them," Margolis chortles. "So here we were, these adorable characters in polka-dot pants and top hats, pummeling away at these guys. For days after, we'd be sitting in a cafe and hear people ask each other: 'Did you hear about those clowns who beat up those drunks?' "
For all its financial and educational benefits, the mime-on-the-street life palled after a time. In 1978 the pair moved to Montreal to join the mime troupe Omnibus. They found the Canadian environment very supportive: a nice studio, daily rehearsals, extensive touring. But eventually they grew homesick.
"You can only talk about maple syrup for so long," quips Margolis about her French Canadian sabbatical. "I think that's why, when we got back here, 'Autobahn' just surged out of us -- all that Howdy Doody, Lucy, 'Leave It to Beaver' stuff we had missed for so long."
Once back in New York, Margolis and Brown set up shop in Brooklyn, opening a school to train a company of their own in their version of Decroux technique. Since that time they've not only established a company and created an impressive body of work, but have renovated a small arts center that now boasts video editing and recording studios. And though they have yet to attract the big sponsors, they've certainly made their mark as artistic role models and teachers.
"We now have 40 students with us," says Margolis. "Our work is so specific, and it requires a certain egolessness, a love of ensemble. You have to feel fulfilled standing in the back, or under a piece of material. And we're looking for actors who want to be actors, interpreters, conduits -- not directors. So we end up feeling responsible for a lot of these performers. We try to do some large events, but we can't always provide them with work. It's a real conflict."
Speaking of conflict, have there ever been moments of tension between Magolis and Brown? What is it like being married to your creative collaborator?
"It's our life," Margolis deadpans. "Neither of us believes that we would create as good work on our own. We say it to each other a thousand times during rehearsal. My forte is people, whereas Tony can sit with a technical manual or in front of a computer for days. But our work sensibilities are identical. We sleep on the floor wherever we collapse. Sometimes three days go by and we haven't left the studio.
"Sitting in a bar is not what we prefer to do," she declares. "We have no social life. Art is it."