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A CurtainUp Review
Garden of Earthly Delights
By Simon Saltzman
Additional Thoughts by Elyse Sommer

Well, it wasn't South Pacific! —(an overheard remark from a member of the audience going up the aisle at the end of the performance.
Garden of Earthly delights
A scene from Garden of Earthly Delights
(Photo: Richard Finkelstein, copyright 2008)
No one who attends a show created by director/choreographer Martha Clarke for the first time can really anticipate or even guess what might be in store. I suspect that the woman whose remark is quoted above rather enjoyed herself as she had a big grin on her face. Those who remember Garden of Earthly Delights from its original run in 1984 at St. Clement's, or from its subsequent extended run at the Minetta Lane Theatre in 1987, will be anxious to revisit this extraordinary work, presumably re-worked a bit by Clarke. Based on the famed triptych painted by Hieronymus Bosch in 1503 and 1504, in which the history of mankind is depicted and as it came to be accepted by the faithful in medieval Christian doctrine, it remains a stunning theatrical experience.

Clarke has given equal time and latitude to Bosch's biblical and the heretical visions, but unlike the left to right path the eye takes as it looks at the three-part painting/collage, the action in the one-hour show proceeds smoothly and chronologically. Dressed only in sheer body stockings (courtesy of designer Jane Greenwood), the performers are as close to being naked as possible as they enter a bleak colorless world. Lithe and limber, some appear as four-legged creatures slowly and gracefully roaming the earth, their torsos bent forward so that their hands reach to the floor with a sweeping motion.

The arrival of knowledge and conflict begins with Adam and Eve and when she takes a bite out of that delicious and darned apple. It follows that the scent of a woman would prompt erections (somewhat humorously appended) on the men. Body language is paramount as the performers move through the various and progressive states of self-discovery, including bodily functions and a variety of sexual encounters. The rise in hatred and cruelty is evidenced by the horrific acts perpetrated during the Spanish Inquisition. Scenes of torture and the ability of men to be inhuman to each other in the guise of religious dogma give the show a chilling vision of misplaced morality.

Not quite as lurid as the images from Dante's Inferno, the episode in which we see humans doomed to suffer the torments of hell as they await salvation and resurrection are chilling. Watching performers spinning suspended by pulleys and being hurtled toward the rafters (courtesy of the Flying By Foy Company) is thrilling.

While Clarke's ingeniously conceived and executed work may be nothing more than a fantastical mythology-based exercise, it brings an artistic light to the darkest and most depraved aspects of misplaced religiosity. Speaking of light, Christopher Akerlind's lighting effects are spectacularly eerie, as is Peaslee's haunting music. Three musicians dressed as monks play the score and occasionally roam about the stage.

There is the temptation to consider Clarke's interpretation of Bosch's masterpiece as a work striving for profundity. Actually, she implants a wry and humorous layer on to Bosch's panorama of sin, sensuality and redemption that fills us with, as the title suggests, delight. As originally conceived and performed for our voyeuristic pleasures, Garden of Earthly Delights was honored in its original run with a Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience, an Obie Award for Richard Peaslee's original score, and a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for choreography.

This production appeared earlier this season at the Two River Theater Company in Red Bank. If you missed it there, here is your chance to catch it here.

My own visit to this latest incarnation of Martha Clarke's most famous theater dance and movement piece came just a week after seeing the London born super musical hit Billy Elliot on Broadway, Both shows are indebted to Flying by Foy— Billy Elliot for the stunning Swan Lake dream dance, The Garden of Earthly Delights for its dizzying multiple flight sequences. Flying by Foy has also given wing to many other shows, including Peter Pan, The Lion King and the Angel in Angels in America. No wonder that Garden of Earthly Delights is dedicated to Peter Foy.

I'd like to add to Simon Saltzman's astute review a special hurrah for musicians Wayne Hankin, Egil Rostad and Arthur Solari who are integral to making this such a visceral experience. The thunder sheets and early instruments intensify the hallucinatory effect of the piece. The monk-like musicians' turned torturers during the choreographed middle section of the Bosch triptych (the cello used to impale a dancer, the drum to mercilessly beat another) are ghastly but unforgettable.

A word too about the venue. My companion knew that Garden. . . would have aerial choreography, so when I told he to meet me at the Minetta Lane, she asked "Are you sure, you've got the right theater? How are they going to fit flying dancers into that teensie venue?" As it turned out she didn't realize that the theater, though small in terms of seating capacity has a high ceiling and that combination proved to be a brilliant fit for the high flying choreography.

As with Vers Flamme, a dance interpretation of three Chekhov stories and my own first encounter with Martha Clarke's art and literature inspired dance pieces, costumer Jane Greenwood's contribution is immeasurable. While I love language, and consider dialogue an essential theatrical ingredient, choreographers like Martha Clarke and Annie Parson (/A Simple Heart) and Matthew Bourne (Swan Lake) continue to blur the lines between theater and dance. Vienna Lusthaus inspired by painters, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiel, combined Ms. Clarke's wordless choreography with some text by Charles Mee, and a cast that merged dancers with actors .

Links to previous Martha Clarke work reviewed at Curtainup:
Vienna Lusthaus
Vers Flamme

Garden of Earthly Delights
  Conception, Direction and Choreography by Martha Clarke
Cast: Sophie Bortolussi, Benjamin G. Bowman, Daniel Clifton, Marjorie Folkman, General McArthur Hambrick, Whitney V. Hunter, Gabrielle Malone, Jennifer Nugent, Matt Rivera, Jenny Sandler, Isadora Wolfe Set & Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind
  Costume Design: Jane Greenwood
  Sound Design: One Dream
  Flying by Foy
  Running Time: 1 hour no intermission
  Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane
  (212) 307 — 4100
  Performances: Tuesday at 7 PM, Wednesday - Friday at 8 Pm, Saturday at 3 PM and 8 PM and Sunday at 3 Pm and 7 PM.
  Tickets ($40 - $69.50) Premium seats are available for $110; Same day rush tickets are available at the box office for $30.00.
  Opened 11/19/08 Limited 12-week run, closing 1/18/09—extended to 3/01/09 -- and pinched by economy, closing 4/05/09.
  Reviewed by Simon Saltzman based on performance 11/15/08
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