Funny how a revolutionary aesthetic that paved the way for avant-garde theater can seem quaint when sampled nearly a century after it was born.
The pair of one-acts presented under the title “DADA Returns!” by Legitimate Stage at the D.C. Arts Center can’t avoid a whiff of antiquity. A six-member cast performs both pieces with considerable energy, volume and sweat, although not a uniform level of skill.
Yet it’s tough to be in the audience at DCAC’s tiny Adams Morgan theater space and not derive some pleasure watching this celebration of the deconstructionist impulse that must have fired the Dadaists, writers and visual artists who emerged during World War I in response to the horrors of war.
The two pieces, “Manifestival” and “Handkerchief of Clouds,” are staged by John Spitzer. In the 1990s, Spitzer’s now-defunct Fraudulent Productions presented an array of avant-garde classics in the Washington area. Now, his Legitimate Stage company has taken up the mantle.
In “Manifestival,” compiled by Spitzer from Dadaists writers,Dominick Lonardo, Michael Miyazaki, Dan Awkward and Chris Mrozowski saunter on in cutaway coats, boxer shorts, socks with garters and black shoes. Ties raggedly hacked off mid-chest set off their white shirts.
Like a Greek chorus, only less in unison than in cacophony, they spray the audience with definitions of Dadaism. Or rather, they define what Dadaism is not: “Dada is by no means a school and certainly not a brotherhood, nor is it a new cologne for men. Dada is a phase in the development of the modern mind, a ferment, a virile agent. Dada is unlimited, illogical and eternal . . . it lasts, and will last, as long as the spirit of negation contains the ferment of the future. . . . Dada Dada Dada, a roaring of tense colors and interlacing of opposites and of all contradictions, grotesqueries, inconsistencies: life.”
Following the 10-minute nonmusical oratorio “Manifestival,” comes “Handkerchief of Clouds: A Tragedy in Fifteen Acts” by Tristan Tzara. The play traces a near-love affair between a self-absorbed poet (Lonardo) and an unhappy banker’s wife (Ellen Wilhite) that almost, but never quite, happens. Tzara’s piece contains a plot, but one that deliberately sends up melodramas of his day. And actors constantly step out of character to comment on the story and announce the titles of each act.
At one juncture, the poet and the banker’s wife, for complicated reasons, launch into excerpts of “Hamlet,” both speaking the lines as Al Pacino might. It’s a pretty delicious digression.
Of all the cast members, Wilhite manages to hit the most convincing character notes and still maintain that loopy Dada style. She also wears a to-die-for series of slinky gowns and amusing hats. The stylish, witty costumes are by Azura Hassan.
An entertainingly educational theatrical footnote, “DADA Returns!” is fervently, if unevenly, staged. At a length shorter than most Hollywood comedies, it has no chance to wear out its welcome.
Spitzer will remount the show July 17-29 as part of the Capital Fringe Festival.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.
by John Spitzer, assembled from the writings of Dadaists Jean Arp, Raul Hausmann, Richard Huelsenbeck, Marcel Janco, Francis Picabia and Tristan Tzara. Directed by Spitzer. Lighting and scenic design by Jonathan Weinberg; sound, David Crandall. About 80 minutes. With Julie Myers. Presented by Legitimate Stage through June 23 at D.C. Arts Center, 2438 18th St. NW. 202-462-7833.