“This place is fraught,” Niegel Smith, the artistic director of The Flea, was saying at the beginning of “Arden,” the first production by the Off-Off Broadway theater company after almost two years of silence, caused not just by the pandemic but by the Flea’s implosion from internal dissent.
“This place has celebrated a vision of black and brown folks dependent on white saviors,” Smith continued. “This house is in ruins.”
The Flea’s collapse in 2020 is a long, sad and ugly story, which threatened to destroy a theater, founded in 1996, that I had frequently attended and often written about (e.g. about its history, about Smith when he was hired to be its second-ever artistic director, and about many of its shows, including the last one before the shutdown, Taylor Mac’s The Fre, which I saw on Friday the 13th in March, 2020.)
Now, nearly two years later, The Flea is back, having promised a radical reorganization, and a new mission “to support and invest in experimental art by Black, brown and queer artists.” On the night I attended, Smith was not making a conventional reopening speech. He was performing as part of the production. Dressed in an ecclesiastical-looking pure white robe, with his brown chest bared, he was chanting “This place is fraught” over and over again, ritualistically, as he walked backwards along a large square chalked on the floor of the theater, followed close behind (or ahead, since they were walking backwards) by Jack Fuller, similarly garbed, making music.
Arden is the name of the forest in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” a country idyll that represents an escape from the corruption of the Duke’s court. The Flea’s “Arden” (subtitled “But Not Without You”) is a piece devised by Smith and four others that feels in part like a healing or cleansing ritual, an effort to get past trauma: There are chants, songs, poems, poetic movement, childhood anecdotes, exhortations, communal prayers. But most of this is threaded through a loud, bluesy rock concert, the effect of which is wonderfully entertaining – somewhat reminiscent at times of another currently running downtown theater piece/ritual/party/concert, Taylor Mac’s “The Hang,” albeit far less elaborate, and designed in a darker palette. The similarity can’t be chalked up to coincidence: Niegel Smith directed both.
Unlike “The Hang,” which is inspired by Plato’s account of Socrates’ last days, “Arden” doesn’t have any overt focus, classical or otherwise (despite the allusion to Shakespeare in the title.) The closest to a narrative arc in “Arden” is the playing midway through the 80-minute piece of an audio recording of Carrie Mae Weems, well-known as a visual artist, telling a long, engaging story involving the relationship between her mother and her father, and how she came to distrust her father and appreciate her mother. At the end of “Arden,” we then see a video of Weems’ mother giving a speech at a community meeting about family and unity, saying “Be kind to one another. Learn from each other.”
In a note in the program, Diana Oh, one of the devisers and performers, describes “Arden” like this: “Four Generations of Deeply Intimately Bound All-Kinds-of-Doing-Shit Artists sharing of themselves in a Tender-Ass Room full of Queer Femme Shamanic Energy who Genuinely and Gently Welcome You: Social Anxieties, Yummy Freakiness, and All.”
For some theatergoers, this description may not prompt a feeling of welcome, but rather a quiet “oh oh.” Yet Oh turns out to be terrific, both as performer and as composer of the original music.
Still, my hope is that “Arden” is a palate cleanser, rather than a blueprint for all future work at the Flea – that the theater will present a mix of difficult, charming, uncomfortable, healing, unprecedented, classical, important, personal, spiritual, political, insightful, bizarre, thought-provoking, impenetrable, revolutionary, revisionist…worthwhile works of theater, some even with a plot.
Arden: But, Not Without You
The Flea through March 6
Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $15 – $35
Conceived of and devised by Peter Born, Diana Oh, Okwui Okpokwasili, Niegel Smith & Carrie Mae Weems
Co-Directed by Nia Witherspoon & Niegel Smith
Featuring: Peter Born, Bernice “Boom Boom” Brooks, Viva DeConcini, Jack Fuller, Diana Oh, Okwui Okpokwasili, Niegel Smith, Serena Ebony Williams
and Carrie Mae Weems
Environment Design: Peter Born
Costume Design: Linda Cho
Sound, Lighting & Projection Designer: Hao Bai
Music Producer & Co-Music Director: Jack Fuller
Co-Music Director: Diana Oh
Associate Costume Designer: Raphael Regan
Associate Sound Designer: Bryson Ezell