Frederick Neumann looks happy. Ruddy and white-haired, the 67-year-old member of Mabou Mines, New York’s legendary avant-garde collective, breaks into a grin so beatific that, like the Cheshire Cat’s, it seems to linger in the room long after its owner has departed.
For that matter, Neumann’s conversation has a slightly Carrollian cast. Ask him a question, and his response will originate in deepest left field, as if in response to some other query. Minutes later, when he slams the point home, you realize he was never off the point in the first place.
As we sit in the rehearsal studio of the picturesquely crumbling East Village schoolhouse that Mabou Mines calls home, Neumann talks about the troupe’s upcoming Reel to Real, which he has written and directed, and on which he collaborates with his 28-year-old son David. The piece will be seen in New York April 4 – 24 at the experimental venue the Kitchen.
Although not a member of Mabou Mines, the younger Neumann is a Bessie award – winning dancer and choreographer, best known for his work with the Doug Elkins Dance Company. Father and son have appeared together as actors before – most notably in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s 1989 production of Cymbeline, directed by former Mabou member JoAnne Akalaitis. Reel to Real, Frederick Neumann’s first original work, is their most substantial collaboration to date.
Steeped in the language and imagery of filmmaking, the play’s reference points include exploitation films (especially women-in-prison potboilers), existential “road” movies and vintage Hollywood melodrama. The first thing we see is a projected image: a closeup of a man driving in the rain, ruminating as the windshield wipers slap back and forth. The audience hears his thoughts on tape, and discovers that he is a B-movie director trying to reach a soundstage so he can finish the last scenes of a film called Y. A light comes up through a scrim, and we see the soundstage through the projection of his face – as though we’re peering directly at the images flitting through his agitated brain.
The projection fades out, and we watch the activities on the soundstage. Three women, convicted of murder, sit in prison cells; they are waiting both for the commutation of their sentences and for the director to arrive. The film crew serves as Greek chorus, commenting on the action through movement and occasional bursts of filmmaking jargon.
David Neumann’s choreography is especially crucial to Reel to Real, since the five actors-dancers who comprise the film crew bear so much of the play’s thematic weight. According to Frederick, “The art of making movies is expressed through their gesticulations, their body language, how they act individually, how they act as pairs – how they act as a mass. In a way, they are like the audience. They are onlookers, not participants as the performers who verbalize their parts are. I feel that they are the heroes of the piece – the eventual public that would be the consumers of this kind of film.”
Perhaps it was inevitable that David, raised in an atmosphere of intense creativity, should become an artist himself. Less expected is the intuitive rapport between father and son – the mutual admiration, the relative absence of familial tension. Although the elder Neumann admits that he can’t help acting like Dad every now and then, he feels that he and David “have similar sensibilities. We know how to wait out a knot, a place where we might not understand each other, or where impatience gets in the way. But on the other hand, I understand that he is somebody else – and that other person is not my son. It’s something of his own making.”
Reel to Real can’t necessarily be described as a “typical” Mabou Mines piece, since there ain’t no such animal. Perhaps the one thing it shares with its predecessors – works ranging from stark and incantatory Samuel Beckett pieces to political burlesques such as Dead End Kids – is its ability to juggle a number of massive themes without losing its sense of playfulness. The action takes place on several planes at once, and its simultaneous use of theatre, film and dance can be seen as representing the multilayered nature of everyday experience. Fact and fantasy blur (the women may be imprisoned, or may only be acting; the director exists only as a projection). The form suggests that art and life bleed into one another at indeterminate points, and that we may pattern our own lives according to preconceived images fed to us by movies.
“I didn’t wish to be doing some kind of Pirandello play,” the author says, “but it begs comparison because of all this playing around with what is real and what is not real, and how the so-called unreal sort of takes over. There’s a kind of dark, dark thing about this piece that would suggest that this is terribly dangerous. That some of us are completely lost in the imagery of a life that we think we’re living.”
A disturbing thought – especially coming from someone who makes a quasi living dreaming up fictional scenarios for audiences to consume. And yet what really comes across in this intergenerational enterprise is the two Neumanns’ overriding faith that art heightens and clarifies reality more than it distorts it. Thus, by closely examining the “reel,” we can – if we’re very, very careful – come closer to understand the “real.”