A welcome gust of weird, and adventures in shadow puppetry

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A welcome gust of weird, and adventures in shadow puppetry
An undated photo provided by Maya Sharpe shows a scene from “This and That” at the Chocolate Factory Theater in Queens, which uses shadow puppets and projections to create a plotless landscape of music and morphing shapes. “My Onliness” is voluptuous and frenetic, while “This and That” is a slip of a show. Both are pleasingly peculiar. Maya Sharpe via The New York Times.

by Laura Collins-Hughes

NEW YORK, NY.- Some theaters dim the lights momentarily to signal that the performance is about to begin. Others sound a delicate three-note chime.

At the New Ohio Theater, in Greenwich Village, audience members crowded into the lobby waiting to see the madcap new play “My Onliness” are alerted to curtain time by the sudden blast of a conch shell and the arrival of a human with a unicorn head, who leads a procession into the house.

Don’t mind the man in swim goggles showering onstage under a thin stream of water, wearing a sign that says “WRITER” and a tall foil hat that looks like the progeny of a Hershey’s Kiss and a bishop’s miter. Just take in the voluptuous strangeness of it all. For theater lovers ravenous for the downtown-peculiar, “My Onliness” is savory sustenance.

The cast of characters includes a ginormous lobster, who is warm of heart and terribly charming. But first in this dark, frenetic fable by Robert Lyons, with music by Kamala Sankaram, there is the Mad King.

Dressed in sequined red, his face sparkly with glitter, the Mad King (Daniel Irizarry, who directed the show) occupies a throne that is quite literally a high chair — the perfect perch for a childish narcissist extraordinaire, who considers himself “a great genius of living.”

“Listen up!” he barks at the audience arrayed around him on three sides. “I told you that in my presence you are all equal. It’s true! You are equally nothing.”

A danger to the Writer (Rhys Tivey), whom he considers a threat, and an enemy to Morbidita (Cynthia LaCruz), a subject who dares to approach him with a petition, the Mad King nonetheless has a sneaky charisma, and he’s well-mannered when it suits him.

If he wants to lie across spectators’ laps, or recruit someone to drag him around the stage, he asks nicely and does take no for an answer. Ditto when he goes seat to seat, offering generous slugs of rum to each of us. Who says consent protocols can’t be fun?

Presented with One-Eighth Theater and IRT Theater, “My Onliness” is sprinkled with songs and performed in English and American Sign Language, with two graceful, glamorous Court Mediums (Malik Paris, who also plays the lobster, and Dickie Hearts) signing the show. (Artistic sign language direction is by Alexandria Wailes and Kailyn Aaron-Lozano.) The musicians, Joanie Brittingham and Drew Fleming, are comparatively subtle presences onstage — until the show turns operatic and Brittingham unleashes her lovely soprano.

Lyons calls his play “an homage to Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz,” the early 20th-century, anti-totalitarian avant-gardist who was a visual artist as well as a playwright. With a crimson, alley-style set by Jungah Han, vivid lighting by Christina Tang and phantasmagorical costumes by James Terrell and Brittani Beresford, this show is saturated with color and tinged with the absurd. Occasionally delicate, it’s more often chaotic, and gleefully so.

And while it’s a political play — “You have to wonder why someone doesn’t just kill him,” the Writer says of the Mad King — it’s less about plot than about a near onslaught of sensation, some of which is lost to poor sight lines.

“My Onliness” is the kind of show that in its muchness may leave you slightly mystified. But there’s an unhinged jollity to it, too. It is a welcome gust of weird.

At the Chocolate Factory Theater in Long Island City, Queens, the Institute of Useless Activity’s “This and That” is also experimental, but it occupies the other end of the overload spectrum. Its medium is light and shadow.

Created by Steven Wendt and Phil Soltanoff, and performed by Wendt, one of the Blue Men of Blue Man Group, it is a slip of a show — no plot or dialogue, just projections, shadow puppetry, music.

Presented with the Bushwick Starr and directed by Soltanoff, it’s soothing stuff. The first section gets gently psychedelic, with kaleidoscopic colors and morphing shapes, and lots of following an emerald-green light. If you have a favorite edible, I imagine that preshow would be a fine time to indulge.

Later Wendt makes shadow puppets, which are variously impressive — such as the form of an adult and a child, sweetly rocking — and perplexing. There was one that I never did figure out.

A grain of salt: At the performance I saw, someone in the front row was shooting cellphone video for the Chocolate Factory’s archives. In a show about light and darkness, a brightly glowing phone screen is as loud as a shout, and as disruptive. I might have been able to lose myself more to the experience without that.

It is a playful production, though, with a spirit of inquiry. In just under an hour, it doesn’t add up to much, but, then again, the clue is in the name. “This and That” is a sampling — curated odds and ends.

My Onliness

Through Sept. 24 at the New Ohio Theater, Manhattan; newohiotheatre.org. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

This and That

Through Sept. 24 at the Chocolate Factory Theater, Queens; thebushwickstarr.org. Running time: 55 minutes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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