House or How to Lose An Orchard in 90 Minutes or Less by Theater Mitu

Theater Mitu’s latest devised theater piece is a 70-minute tech-heavy sensory bombardment, a collage  of disparate images, monologues, songs and sounds that are focused (if that’s the right word) on what a house means to people. Like the other work by the 22-year-old company that I’ve seen over the years – such as “Remnant” last year, and “Juarez: A Documentary Mythology” in 2014 —  Theater Mitue begins with a serious theme, researches it extensively, conducting interviews with experts and regular people living all over the world, and then presents a jumble of a show that (as I’ve put it in past reviews) ranks conventional clarity as a low priority.

The main difference this time is that I got to talk to Theater Mitu’s artistic director Rubén Polendo and other members of the company, for an article for TDF Stages.

It made me appreciate “House (or how to lose an orchard in 90 minutes or less)” more than I might have otherwise. So, for example, threaded throughout a set that’s mostly the wooden frame of a house under construction, “House” includes 14 video monitors. They sometimes simply show on screen what the performers are doing live on stage, but often the monitors compete with the live action by showing old footage, such as a 1950s news segment about a housing development offering the new ideal American dream house, a 1952 Disney short of a cartoon house…. and even an old commercial for Cherry Coke.

The news story and the Disney cartoon are obviously relevant to the theme of the theater piece, but why, I asked Polendo, does the show include a commercial for Cherry Coke?

His response: “One of the spaces the old commercials inhabit is a place of memory. When they air, people not only remember that moment in their lives but they also remember where they were.   It is unlikely that you would have seen that commercial in your car or on the street. You saw it sitting on your couch, in your house.”

In other words, “House” is intended not so much as a presentation but as a stimulation. As Denis Butkus, a Juilliard-trained actor who joined the company in 2011,  put it to me, “House is a series of installations, not necessarily privileging story over anything else. We’re interested in emotions. We’re going to give you feelings, and you are going to make your own associations.”

The key to appreciating “House,” then, is not to expect to make sense of the piece as a whole, but to savor your reaction to specific moments that wind up meaning something to you – such as company member Kayla Asbell’s monologue based on an interview with a woman who visited the house she grew up in, now abandoned.

But how does one even take in these individual moments when they are surrounded by so much excess stimuli?  The script is structured much like Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” with four “acts” – labeled The Arrival. The Death of a Child. Foreclosure. Death of a House. “House” even presents some passages taken in whole or in part from Chekhov’s play, supplemented by excerpts from the many interviews. But the production is overlaid with what one could reasonably consider deliberate distractions. We listen to a busy aural landscape through the required headphones , as we watch the nine grave-faced performers (who are also credited as the creators), wearing identical yellow blazers and white go-go boots,  speak in robotic cadences, or play a saw like an eerie musical instrument, or break out into a joyless space age dance. And then there are those 14 video monitors.

Polendo explained to me why Theater Mitu overloads. It’s an effort to re-create the way our mind processes the world. “The voices in your head are filled with memories and pop media and anything else that is rolling around in there.”

But surely good theater doesn’t attempt to present the whole of consciousness; it selects.“The art of writing is the act of leaving out,” one of my favorite teachers liked to say. Or, in the words of Isaac Bashevis Singer, “the wastebasket is a writer’s best friend. “

House (or how to lose an orchard in 90 minutes or less)” is on stage at Mitu588 (580 Sackett Street in Gowanus) through September 8, 2019.

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Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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