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    A critic in every port: food and water Essay

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    LONDON: Discovering the links between spiritual grace and grocery shopping; reliving Ireland’s sectarian violence in the company of a band of mummers; plunging waist-deep in 224 tons of water with Vietnamese puppeteers manipulating a water buffalo: This year’s London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) offered something for everyone, as the biennial event has ever since its 1981 inception.

    New Yorkers were right to feel a particular pride, since three of the festival’s most popular Events originated in Manhattan. The Wooster Group attracted nightly lines for return tickets with its multimedia deconstruction of Chekhov, Brace Up!, allowing Londoners a glimpse of lots of New York Attitude as well as film star Willem Dafoe returning to his stage roots in the role of Three Sisters’ violin-sawing kid brother Andrei. (Dafoe’s astonishing wig, hair parted on the side and shooting off into space, reminded more than one local observer of British actor Alex Jennings in Richard Jones’s legendary production of Too Clever by Half.) The production’s hypnotic Vershinin, Ron Vawter, reappeared the following week to perform his no less riveting duet of solo monologues, Roy Cohn/Jack Smith, adding a special benefit performance to fund a local support group for women with AIDS.

    A film-star who has not of late returned to her roots, Sigourney Weaver, was on site at the Regent’s Park boating lake to cheer on husband Jim Simpson’s production of Mac Wellman’s Bad Penny. To this observer, Bad Penny offered the most entertaining impromptu theatre of the festival, whether in the musings of one heckler who had to be told sotto voce that he was watching “a performance” (unlike with most New Yorkers, that admonition seemed to do the trick of shutting him up) or in the umbrella-wielding chorus chanting “incomprehensible” while lunchtime passers-by clearly thought exactly that. (Wellman was represented as well by the funny, torrential monologue Terminal Hip.)

    If the in-your-face aggressions of Bad Penny seemed distinctly un-English, the boating lake provided the pleasantest possible counterpart to its original Central Park location; in either case, the site of the event was as exciting as the event itself. Certainly that was the feeling one blazing summer Sunday when the classical loggia of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, southeast London, found itself hosting both the Hanoi Water Puppets and a pageant of Vietnamese history, Sang Song Water Crossing. Oddly, neither popular attraction drew much of the Vietnamese community from around Greenwich the largest in Britain beyond the entrepreneurs who set up stalls to sell prawn toast, noodles and other indigenous dishes. The low Vietnamese turnout apparently reflected the divided country itself, as local refugees are thought to scorn official state representatives (which the Hanoi Water Puppets of course were seen to be).

    Still, anyone expecting an afternoon of veiled propaganda was in for a surprise. Boasting 10 puppeteers and 5 singer-musicians, the event provided an enchanting introduction to a technique that even in Vietnam is infinitely mysterious. (Company members must sign a contract agreeing not to give away the tricks of the trade.)

    Whether spitting water and fire or embarking upon a lovely phoenix dance, the puppets captivated a sellout crowd of 400, many of them children and all of them no doubt ready to jump into the pool once the show had ended. As for Sang Song, this re-enactment of Vietnam’s mythical beasts the dragon, unicorn, phoenix and golden turtle–traced a journey from the Mekong to the Thames involving 200 children from 9 Greenwich schools. If the pageantry wore thin, the delight of the participants never did–many of them looked as though they were ready to embark upon a life in the theatre at the ripe old age of seven.

    In addition to the Vietnamese duo, Asia provided two other intriguing LIFT entries. The Chengdu Theatre of Sichuan had a small-scale (and little-seen) triumph in Ripples over Stagnant Water, which made history of sorts by being the first contemporary Chinese play ever to be seen in Britain; adapted by the director Zha Lifang from a novel by Sichuan’s most famous modern writer, Li Jieren, the play lived up to its billing as a Sichuan Madame Bovary, even if its depiction of erotic and geographical yearning seemed to honor Chekhov over Flaubert.

    And while LIFT ’93 offered no staging of a classic to rival Hungary’s landmark Katona Jozsef Three Sisters from 1989, Indian director Neelam Mansingh Chowdry shifted Lorca’s fiery Yerma to her own country, mounting a production of earthy, often brutal lucidity spoken in Punjabi and yet accessible to everyone. In Chowdry’s telling, Lorca’s tragedy of misplaced love was an occasion for various images Peter Brook would no doubt appreciate–a blood-stained sheet lifted at the climax to take the place of the expected physical encounter; Yerma covered in dry leaves standing under a burning rope; a chorus of ecstatic release linking the passions in Lorca, surprisingly but not ineptly, to those of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa.

    Elsewhere, text itself mattered less than at this year’s LIFT than theatre pieces working by image and association. One event–Gordon Stefanovski’s timid and ponderous Sarajevo needed all the associations it could muster to measure up to the horrific daily newspaper chronicles of a soon-to-be-lost city under constant siege; if ever a play tied to current events was shown up by those very events, the hapless Sarajevo was it, and in context one could only feel sorry for the hardworking cast.

    In a class of its own and class is the operative word given the show’s venue, a Regent’s College lecture hall–was How to Shop, the new performance piece from North London housewife and mother of two (her description) Bobby Baker. Indeed, Ms. Baker was big on self-definition, starting her show by “making it completely plain that I am a woman.” That she is, as well as an engaging mix of Penelope Keith and Rose English: at once cozily suburban and surreal. Her show is nominally a guide to supermarket shopping, complete with slides of the Croyden Co-op in South London; but food for Baker is merely a means to the end of achieving spiritual grace, and it’s no accident that the show ends with her hoisted aloft in a state of angelic exultation. (“We are looking for more that just our groceries,” she tells us helpfully. “We are shopping for life in the deepest sense.”)

    When How to Shop disappointed, which it sometimes did, the fault lay less in the made-on-the-spot garlic croutons (mine were soggy) than in a refusal to take the conceit even further. The shopping cart routines were fun but not fleshed out, and there’s only so much mileage to be got out of meaningful stares at tinned anchovies. What’s needed is more of the abandon of Baker’s best moments, whether via footage of her swimming bare-breasted in a pool of red wine or searching through the bread section for love. In the end, all links between parsley and humility aside, Baker constitutes her own best invention. No wonder it was among the more disconcerting moments in all of LIFT to enter a north London restaurant a mere hour or so after her lesson on food to find none other than Baker and her entourage having an animated dinner in one corner the angel, amazingly, was human after all.

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