Old Tricks at the Chocolate Factory

oldtricksRed Metal Mailbox has created what at first appears to be a delightful confection of 1890s-style all-female vaudeville. Three talented performers dance, sing, pout, tell jokes, do tricks, and generally create the intimate atmosphere of a Parisian nightclub in the basement of an industrial building just on the edge of Long Island City. Standing outside on a warm spring night, one can see the buildings of Manhattan just across the East River. For a jaded Upper Westsider, it’s worth the trip to Queens.

Presented as part of the Chocolate Factory’s Visiting Artists Program, Old Tricks is the creation of Sarah Maxfield, Rachel Tiemann, Sarah Gancher, and Ali Harmer. Red Metal Mailbox’s mission is to create “investigative performance by linking original text with a highly physical aesthetic.” What results is an entertaining mixture of music, song, and dance, along with brief tales of both humor and pathos. The mostly twenties audience laughed with pleasure.

The evening’s gaiety starts with the performers personally leading the audience into the mildly sepulchral space, seating around 40 or so people. In a chair to one side of the performance area, a lone violinist (Sarah Gancher, who is responsible for all the music) sits and plays. The performers then step to the other side of the space to a dressing table and invisible mirror, where they prepare to go on—robing, making up, posing, pushing breasts into place over corsets, etc. It is all in good fun and part of the set-up: “we are here to entertain you” is the message. And art, in this instance, is artifice.

What follows is a “boardwalk performance” in front of a kind of stylized brain machine on the wall. The gimmick is that it can read the audience’s mind so that they will perform what we want to see. They will be sensual, do tricks, even contortions, tell jokes, and generally knock themselves out to make us happy. Much of this part of the show is physical comedy, evoking laughter. Picture the Three Stooges, but lovely young women dressed provocatively, and you get the idea.

There is a kind of intermission, with the ladies passing out boxes of really quite tasty popcorn, and little flags for us to vote on our “favorite” among them. Since no one gets up and leaves the area, it’s not exactly an intermission; or rather, it’s the staging of a staged intermission. The section which follows is a good deal darker than the first half, and is fueled by the words “the future” that the brain machine has coughed up.

Each of the three women then performs a solo piece, with the longest first, a monologue by Flora (who has earlier shown herself as a clown-like drinker, the life of the party, both playful and needy). Her monologue is the quite brilliant and moving story of the “little oyster girl,” obviously a version of herself, pursued by inner and outer demons, driving her to a sad demise. The actress, Rachel Tiemann, gives a stunning performance. She is followed by Daisy (played by Ali Harmer), who does a dance sequence that takes a similar path towards an unhappy conclusion. Her body simply starts to run out of muscle and steam; her earlier flirtatiousness and coy vanity turn to pathos, and she is reduced, finally, to simply sitting on the floor.

Last is Pearl (who has been the saucy intelligent troupe member, witty, wry, and well-embodied by Sarah Maxfield). She starts to sing, but feels something in her throat, something is wrong—pins, pins and needles, nails and ropes, what she soon labels “all the anguish,” and like a Beckett character, she falls into silence. So now the three members of the little troupe are separate and alone.

This is not, however, the final moment. Rather, the three together again ask us once more to “pick your favorite.” When Flora is chosen, the machine tells her, “Congratulations, you may unveil.” When she stands on a small wooden table to do this, shedding corset, skirt, bloomers, top, it proves a humiliating strip tease. Flora looks frightened and confused; the other two women quickly redress her. This theatrical moment reveals the potential pain of nudity, the extremely vulnerability of the naked body.

Old Tricks ends with a song thanking the audience for coming, with the remark, “we tried to please you,” which raises the question of what this evening is about. I would say it is about “performance” and about being female. It suggests, certainly in the post-intermission material, that performance has the potential to be draining for those who do it, leading in “the future” to an emptiness, a downhill slide, an anguished self-awareness of loss of prowess and youth. Of course we know that clowns are basically sad, and that ladies who disrobe in public often harbor huge hostility for their audience. So is Old Tricks trying to tell us that if we truly unveil, we may find the scorpion under the rock, the death’s head under the pretty face, the sadness of Marilyn Monroe, Sylvia Plath, or Billie Holiday? Perhaps. Or perhaps they just wanted to please us. - Victoria Sullivan

OLD TRICKS is playing through May 13, 2006. The Chocolate Factory is located at 5-49 49th Avenue in Long Island City, and is having its annual Benefit Party on June 7.

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Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding or laughing, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees.

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