To fully appreciate the mad imaginative skills of Pointless Theatre’s latest show, the hypnotically energy-packed “.D0t:: a RotoPlastic Ballet,” you should know a little about the homegrown inventors of Pointless themselves.
They represent a model of what a small theater company, built from the ground up on the basis of a fresh aesthetic, should look like. They’re a group of University of Maryland grads, theater majors who fell in love with some classroom pursuits — puppetmaking and the European avant-garde, among other things — and with moxie and passion and know-how have forged a theatrical identity unlike any other you’ll encounter in the city. It makes their work perennially exciting and, each time they unveil a production, utterly surprising.
Their newest, the eccentrically punctuated “.D0t:: a RotoPlastic Ballet,” is a trippy mash-up of hip-hop, sci-fi and the designs of the Italian artist of futurism, Fortunato Depero. In particular it is Depero’s early-20th-century “Balli Plastici” — a dance performed with puppets given a flat, industrial look — that inspires Pointless’s own 40-minute ballet at the downtown Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint.
Executed by eight unseen puppeteers, expertly manipulating dozens of figures and objects on sticks in a toy puppet theater four separate perspectives deep, “.D0t” explores a time in the future when humanity has been reduced to a single survivor, Navi (Navid Azeez). He’s become a key pulse-generating cog in a robot worker society. A disembodied electronic voice called Olive (Rachel Menyuk) advises Navi as he oversees the system — the ballet of daily mechanized life. But on this day, something goes awry: robot Dee Zero Tee develops a glitch of some sort, and one rebellious machine threatens to shatter the harmony of a perfectly ordered world.
The rhythm of this world is dynamically activated by Navi’s narration, recited in a virtuosic nonstop hip-hop monologue by Azeez, accompanied onstage by musicians Nick Wilby and Mike Winch. The volume of lyrics Azeez masters, breathlessly, is amazing, and it has the added benefit of providing the vocal propulsion that drives the puppetry. Under Matt Reckeweg’s witty direction, Patti Kalil’s puppets — bots, trucks, whole factories — whiz by, piecing together for us a playful mosaic of Depero’s vision, joyously and endearingly updated.
This level of delight has been fostered in much of the work that Pointless has done since it was founded in 2010, with Reckeweg (pronounced Wreck-away) and Kalil as its artistic directors. They have dreamed up charming actor-puppet fusions of Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” and Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” and come up with productions from such varied inspirations as entertainers Carmen Miranda and Cab Calloway, canonical theater texts such as Alfred Jarry’s “Ubu Roi” and art movements like dadaism. And all without a permanent home of their own. Along with Synetic Theater and Natsu Onoda Power, the freelance director and Georgetown professor, Pointless has sought to claim a distinct territory for Washington theater, one with a rich imagistic framework. The visual has become, thanks to them, as powerful a force on some local stages as the verbal.
Many Pointless company members live together and near each other in the District’s Petworth neighborhood, and the puppets are designed and assembled in the basement of Kalil’s own house there. “We are structured as a staff of artists,” Reckeweg said on a recent afternoon, when I visited the basement crammed with boxes of art materials that they call their studio. “Everyone is involved in the artistry of the organization.”
Even the company name is rooted in the founders’ go-their-own-way sensibility. As Kalil explained it, while they were still students in College Park, they wanted to put on a puppet show based on Harry Nilsson’s 1971 studio album, “The Point!,” about a smooth-headed boy in a village of pointy-headed people. But they lacked the rights to the story, and after being told that the production could not go forward, Reckeweg said, “We took on the name ‘Pointless.’ ”
Their entree to theater beyond the campus was the Capital Fringe Festival, and then Cultural DC, the nonprofit arts incubator that has operated the Mead Theater Lab in the Flashpoint Gallery on G Street NW, and provided them residencies. That association will come to an end with the impending closing of the gallery, sold to a developer by Cultural DC. Pointless is looking for a new space in which it can innovate just as freely.
In the meantime, you can see Pointless at its best, orchestrating the design and technical elements of “.D0t” with impressive precision; it should also be noted that “Balli Plastici” has been adapted by American puppetmakers before, including a 2009 production by Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center that has been featured at performance-art festivals.
Still, there is an invigorating power all its own to Pointless’s application of modern-day digital vocabulary to the futurism of Depero. Concepts pioneered a century ago, it seems, can still pave the way for the theater makers of tomorrow.
.D0t:: a RotoPlastic Ballet, by Matt Reckeweg, Patti Kalil and Navid Azeez. Directed by Reckeweg. Music composition, Azeez and Mike Winch; puppet design, Kalil; costumes, Frank Labovitz; lighting, E-Hui Woo; text, Aaron Bliden; projections, Lauren Joy; dramaturgy, Alex Leidy. With Rebecca Ballinger, Frank Cevarich, Madeline Key, Sadie Leigh Rothman, Sydney Lo, Matt Sparacino, Matt Strote, Scott Whalen. About 40 minutes. Tickets, $18-$30. Through May 6 at Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, 916 G St. NW. Visit pointlesstheatre.com.