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A CurtainUp Review

Like I Say
By Jenny Sandman

This world is a Saturday matinee horror movie.
Paula Ehrenberg and Jonathan Kells Phillips
Paula Ehrenberg and Jonathan Kells Phillips who play multiple roles (Photo: Peter Jacobsen)
Len Jenkin, along with Erik Ehn, Jeffrey M. Jones, and Mac Wellman, is consistently one of the most innovative writers for off-off-Broadway. Like Kurt Vonnegut, Jenkin is silly and tragic at the same time.

Like I Say, Jenkin's new play at The Flea is typical of his writing: unpredictable, structurally bizarre and strangely comic. It starts at the Hotel Splendide, a run-down, dissolute hotel on an island on "the edge of the world" and populated by vagabonds. Presided over by the patient landlady, Helena Skate, the residents of the Hotel Splendide attempt to while away the hours as best they can. But the story swiftly shifts focus, to Coconut Joe, a coconut buyer for a cookie factory in the Midwest. His quest for the perfect shipment of coconut takes him from Kokomo to Berlin, where he is double-crossed by a beautiful woman. Joe becomes a prisoner at a nuclear waste disposal facility deep in the mountains of Bavaria, but manages to escape to an Italian spa across the border. Here, aging film stars and interior decorators are addicted to a lemur serum that keeps them perpetually young, but the lemur supply can't last forever. Coconut Joe escapes from there to Venice, then to the SS Calamari. The ship sinks and Joe is lost at sea, drifting with a Pirate Queen, when he washes up on Loon Island--home of (you guessed it) the Hotel Splendide.

Meanwhile, back at the hotel, nobody can pay rent. Isaiah is a grieving widower who refuses to acknowledge the love of his nurse, Rose, while the servant is in love with Rose and the landlady is in love with Isaiah. Two Eurotrash puppeteers and con artists, Leon and Tanya Vole, arrive; since everyone is in a funk, they decide to put on a show. Their puppet show is easily the most disturbing since Avenue Q. The puppets (most prominent of which are the Devil and the Devil's Crocodile) suffer gruesome deaths, curse like sailors, and are generally rude and unpleasant.

There is no neat ending, but there is a lovely denouement. However, this is not the sort of play that can be easily summarized or completed which is to its advantage. Like magic realism, it should be enjoyed for what it is. Jenkin's language is beautifu and while e his works are slightly more grounded in reality than, say, Mac Wellman's, he's still capable of producing stage directions like, "A glowing snow goose falls dead from the sky".

The Flea, a veteran of producing unclassifiable plays, is the perfect home for this play. Many of its young, energetic cast are fresh from The Flea's recent production of Cellophane (Our Review), and several are Bat Company mainstays. All have undeniable stage presence and generate amazing group chemistry,. Most play multiple roles.

Jenkin, who also directs, has chosen a very Brechtian performance style, which fits the story admirably. The actors sit with the audience and watch the action between scenes, and dance, warm up, and mingle both before the performance and during intermission. They even narrate the action back to us.

In another intriguing way of using the small space the audience surrounds the long, thin main playing space on two sides. The "hotel" is defined by a stair landing and three enormous windows through which flows some very convincing sunlight. Other spaces are defined merely by a change in costume or a shift in lighting. Despite a very large cast in a small and oddly shaped space, things never feels crowded, which is, I suspect, due as much to the cast's high energy asto Jenkin's directing skills.

Like I Say is one of the most enjoyable shows I've seen all year. It's slyly funny and weird and performed by what are sure to be rising stars. Hopefully it will provide The Flea with another hit.

Written and directed by Len Jenkin
With Oberon K.A. Adjepong, Matthew Dellapina, Paula Ehrenberg, Fernando Gambaroni, Shari Hellman, Lanna Joffrey, Carolinne Messihi, Melissa Miller, Jerry Nauman, Jack O'Neill, John Peterson, Jonathan Kells Phillips, Sayra Player and Jerry Zellers
Sets, Props and Puppets by Sue Rees
Lighting Design by Andrew Hill
Costume Design by Claudia Brown
Sound Design by John Kilgore
Running time: 2 hours and thirty minutes with one intermission
The Flea Theater, 41 White Street; 212-352-3101
10/23/03-11/22/03; opening 11/05/03
Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on October 29th performance

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