Monday, April 14, 2008

Led balloon

The Graf Zeppelin lifts off.

The succinct slogan of Rough and Tumble Theatre is "Theatre that doesn't suck," and for most of this ensemble's history, that's actually been truth in advertising: Rough and Tumble has brought any number of nifty original productions to life, via a clever mix of physical comedy, a lightly rueful worldview, and witty theatrical shorthand. The troupe hit a high point with Backwater, which actually conjured something like a movie camera's roving eye (it left the A.R.T.'s later attempt at translating Donnie Darko in the dust), and I'm Away from My Desk Right Now . . ., a wry satire of cubeland, was almost as memorable. But alas, with An Ocean of Air, the troupe comes up with a theatrical vacuum - perhaps Air doesn't quite blow, but only just barely.

The idea seems to have been to evoke on a shoestring the first round-the-world trip of the Graf Zeppelin (above), a challenge that seems - well, certainly within the Tumblers' grasp, given their earlier successes. But we wait in vain for the kind of "ooh and ahhh" moment (or even ironically "ooh and ahhh" moment) the concept promises; the Tumblers don't have the resources to successfully evoke the period, amd though they provide one or two zeppelesque props, they simply don't conjure the blimp - and if you ain't got the blimp, you ain't got blip. (This was particularly disappointing given the fact that I'd just seen Great Small Works illustrate a flood and a tornado on a tabletop - someone give Rough and Tumble their phone number!).

But even if it never hits anything like a theatrical cruising altitude, Ocean does occasionally get airborne. Sound designer Andrea Morales provides a convincing aural representation of a windstorm and its resulting "emergency landing" (the one moment the zeppelin comes alive for us). And the resourceful Irene Daly, Kristin Baker and Rodney Rafferty occasionally coax some light comedy from the quotidian script (generated by the Tumblers themselves). But other talented members of the troupe (Jason Myatt, George Saulnier III) seem adrift in what feels like an attempt to affectionately satirize their characters' calm skill. To be fair, I caught the show's first performance - still, the "plot" never achieves anything like an arc, and director Dan Milstein's pacing is for once inexplicably slack. As a result, the Tumbler's low-key self-regard begins to seem a bit inflated. Maybe it's time for a new slogan.

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