Attention, class: The topic of the day is Dadaism, the early-20th-century European movement that, in raging against war and bourgeois values, determined that the most profound meaning of art could simply be meaninglessness.
So now, turn your attention to the cacophonous conditions on the stage of the Logan Fringe Arts Space, where a cadre of 10 actors is alternately shouting, singing, dancing, fulminating, gesticulating, crying, declaiming and generally creating a discordant stir. This is Dada in action or, as the members of Pointless Theatre Company call it in their enjoyably, boisterously academic performance piece written by David Lloyd Olson: “Hugo Ball, a Dada Puppet Adventure.”
Named for one of the movement’s founders, a German actor who, disillusioned by World War I, moved to Switzerland and helped create the anarchic artistic style with the kiddie-world title, Pointless’s show would probably be best appreciated by those who know a thing or two about art or theater history. At a running time of about 90 minutes, the production — punctuated by a, er, pointless intermission — runs a tad too long, given the project’s seemingly pedagogical roots.
But Pointless, devisers of such enthralling ventures as a 2014 rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” as a puppet ballet, is a company that, whatever the logistical hurdles, always manages to come up with a compelling visual signature. And here, once again, under the sure-handed guidance of director Matt Reckeweg, set and puppet designer Patti Kalil and costume designer Lee Gerstenhaber, the look of “Hugo Ball” is remarkably rich, given the troupe’s budgetary constraints.
“Hugo Ball,” further developed from a Pointless entry in the 2011 Capital Fringe Festival, recounts as a series of chapters Ball’s evolution into a Dada revolutionary. It is rife with smart conceits, beginning with a sweetly imaginative one: Ball himself is played by a puppet, his appendages a collection of loosely hanging wooden spools and his head, conveniently, a red rubber ball. “Life is suffering!” a schoolteacher enamored with the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche instructs young Hugo, and so, a nihilistic path is set.
In one particularly effective scene, Hugo is directing a play whose actors approach the vacuous material in a conventional performance style; slowly, under Hugo’s tutelage, the costumes undergo an expressionistic metamorphosis and the acting takes on a more ironic dimension. It’s a fine depiction of the seismic upheaval of traditional forms that the young thinkers of Dada were fomenting, and an advance into the provocatively new terrain of conceptual art.
Members of the ensemble perform fragments of evocative music on piano and drums, some of it composed by company member Aaron Bliden. These add aural flavor to proceedings that in Dada fashion, repeatedly threaten to break down into abject chaos. Some further editing of the moments of mayhem might be in order here, as the loud, improvisational elements of “Hugo Ball” sometimes muffle the impact of the more disciplined sequences. This may owe to the youthful brio of the cast and the desire of the director to replicate the “anti-everything-ism” of Dada. But even when disorder is in order, coherence needs to play a supporting role.
Hugo Ball, a Dada Puppet Adventure, by David Lloyd Olson. Directed by Matt Reckeweg. Sets, puppets and masks, Patti Kalil; costumes, Lee Gerstenhaber; lighting, Mary Keegan; sound, Michael Winch; original music and music direction, Aaron Bliden; fight direction, Lex Davis. With Frank Cevarich, Kyra Corradin, Madeline Key, Sadie Leigh, Devin Mahoney, Hilary Morrow, Stacy Musselman, Matthew Sparacino, Scott Whalen, Sarah Wilby. About 90 minutes. Tickets, $20-$25. Through May 14 at Logan Fringe Arts Space, 1358 Florida Ave. NE. Visit pointlesstheatre.com or capitalfringe.org.