My Onliness Review: A Mad King, ASL, and Sensory Assault

“My Onliness” is billed as “a fable/cabaret/circus entertainment about a mad king’s desperate attempt to impress a mysterious petitioner” – a description that doesn’t completely capture the sensory assault and somersaults by the ceaselessly energetic cast, or the aggressive (albeit voluntary) audience participation, or the sheer busy-ness of this boisterous anarchic diversion. If (to put it constructively) you need to be in the right mood to find the fun in all of the show’s loud, chaotic 80 minutes, “My Onliness” does display some real inventiveness, and even hints at a seriousness of purpose.

Daniel Irizarry as the title character

Dickie Hearts as a Medium and Cynthia LaCruz as Morbidita

The inventiveness is self-evident: 
#Two Deaf actors, Dickie Hearts and Malik Paris, are fully incorporated into the seven-member cast, making the production bilingual, in English and American Sign Language.

# Several of the cast members are also musicians (again integrated into the action);  the score ranges from oom-pah-pah instrumental arrangements of jazz standards to country songs to opera, much of it original music composed by Kamala Sankaram, with lyrics by Robert Lyons.

#The over-the-top costumes by James Terrell and Brittani Beresford tell their own story; they include a king’s crown that’s a cardboard steeple befitting a court jester

#Daniel Irizarry, as both the director and the indefatigable title character, comes up with all sorts of ways to involve audience members, from handing out a series of little trinkets — fake coins, little electric candles, paper cups which he then goes around the theater filling from a bottle of liquor – to jumping on laps, stomping on tubs of water to spritz us,  enlisting individual theatergoers to mop the wet stage or drag one of the cast members by the scruff of his neck and throw him on the floor.

The trailer (from an earlier production) suggests both the inventiveness and the sensory assault.

The seriousness of purpose is harder to decipher through all this noise.   There is a clue in the program: Robert Lyons is credited with “text and lyrics” but with the intriguing addition “from Witkacy.” Lyons,   the artistic director of New Ohio Theater, where “My Onliness’ is running through September 24, labels the play “an homage to Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz.”  

Witkiewicz (1885-1939)  — commonly known as Witkacy – was a Polish playwright, painter and philosopher whose work is viewed as a precursor to the Theater of the Absurd.  At the same time, he had been a soldier in the Russian Imperial Army during the Russian Revolution, and  developed the firm belief that Western Civilization was doomed, according to one scholar; he was fearful of  “the imposition of totalitarian dictatorships” – so much so, apparently, that he committed suicide when Russia invaded Poland, 16 days after Germany did.

 “My Onliness” depicts a dystopian society, and employs the non-linear language of absurdist theater to drive it home. The characters inhabit “a new world order of metaphysical self-torture” where nothing is left except “the absurdity of life in-and-of-itself. In and of itself,” says the character identified as the Writer (Rhys Tivey, who undergoes much metaphysical torture, and getting thrown around, with aplomb.) The Writer adds meta-theatrically: “That’s something you won’t see on the stage of any theater. “

The Writer is the Mad King’s nemesis. The only other clearly identified character is Morbidita, the king’s subject (Cynthia LaCruz, a stately presence who sings beautifully if cryptically.)

If a plot never quite crystallizes, amid the jumble of song and sign and shenanigans, some lines informed by Witkacy’s worldview resonate clearly, and politically:

“I am alone like God,” the king says. “I alone rule everything. I alone am responsible for everything.” (Sound familiar?)

“Look,” says the Writer, “I know that the truth – of any kind – bores you. You want a ceremony.”

But the line that resonates most loudly for me, I have to confess, is one that the king proclaims near the beginning of “The Onliness”

“I can see that you are all reasonably intelligent. But none of you can appreciate what I’m saying. I don’t expect you to.”

My Onliness
At New Ohio Theater through September 24
Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $25 ($17 students and seniors)
Text and lyrics by Robert Lyons, from Witkacy
Composed by Kamala Sankaram
Directed by  Daniel Irizarry
Director of American Sign Language: Alexandria Wailes and Kailyn Aaron-Lozano
Set design by Jungah Han, original costume design by James Terrell, additional costume design by Brittani Beresford, lighting design by Christina Tang, sound engineer Lawrence Schober
Cast: Daniel Irizarry, Cynthia LaCruz, Rhys Tivey, Dickie Hearts, Malik Paris, Joanie Brittingham, Drew Fleming, 
Photographs by Suzanne Fiore Photography

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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