Berky (behind) and Moschen - "bowling" over Broadway (Dan Wagner photo)
The Tony Awards on Sunday, June 1, closed the 1985-86 New York theatre season. Though generally disappointing, the past 12 months gave evidence of change at every level of American theatre. Traditional definitions of "theatre" no longer encompass much of the most exciting work being done.
"New Vaudeville" is a major force, representing the resurgence of popular entertainment associated with vaudeville, variety shows and the circus. Leaders of the movement -- Avner the Eccentric, The Flying Karamazov Brothers, Penn and Teller, Michael Moschen, Bob Berky and Bill Erwin -- have expanded their work into the realm of "legitimate theatre."
"It's really a hybrid kind of material we're making. It's not based on something we've seen somebody else do. We're just trying to let it come out of us." - Michael Moschen
What these people do has provided some of the best theatre to be seen during the past season. Along with a number of one-person performances, such as Eric Bogosian's "Drinking in America," Lily Tomlin's "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe," and Spalding Gray's "Swimming to Cambodia," the New Vaudevillians have been redefining Broadway's performer-audience relationship. Though only Tomlin was technically "on Broadway," the performances of others in well-recognized New York playhouses moved them into the mainstream.
Juggling and Broadway are by no means strangers, productions like "Sugar Babies" and "Barnum" employed it. But there is something new in the association. Coming from varied performance backgrounds and traditions, the new vaudevillians are pushing back the bounds of popular entertainment as far as possible. They speak directly to the audience, breaking down theatre's "fourth wall" in ways that challenge expectations. At the same time, they challenge themselves to rediscover the "need" to juggle, clown, mime, conjure and even speak at all.
Jugglers and juggling are at the heart of this exploration into new directions for contemporary performance. The Flying Karamazov Brothers, appeared last year at the newly-reopened Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center with their "Juggling and Cheap Theatrics." They will appear next season in the Brooklyn Academy of Music's (BAM) Next Wave Festival to show off the next stage in their theatrical development.
Another exciting and successful theatrical "transplant" was "The Alchemedians," a collaboration of Bob Berky and Michael Moschen. They opened at the BAM Next Wave Festival in November 1985 and reopened a revised version of the show at the Lamb's Theatre in late March.
Although Moschen's specialty is juggling and Berky's is clowning, both men seem to have an almost limitless range of performance skills. "The Alchemedians" shaped their skills with the theme of alchemy, and juggling was used throughout the production.
"The basic concept of `The Alchemedians' is that you have two people who are both outcasts of a sort attempting to transform objects into `gold' of the ethereal and abstract type -- not the 24-karat variety." - Bob Berky
A written summary of "The Alchemedians" does not appear to have the kind of dramatic unity to make it a coherent piece of theatre. Not following a linear plot line, nor using dialogue in the traditional sense, the production nevertheless developed dramatic action and characters at many levels. Juggling was a way of life for the two characters. Berky and Moschen found themselves in a world where inanimate objects took on unpredictable and usually uncontrollable life.
"... you can do pretty much anything you want in the world today technically, and so what? We're trying to take those things that can be human and allow for a human situation and exploration. You start from nothing basically and build from there." - Michael Moschen
Let's look at "The Alchemedians" in detail. In act I, titled "Laboratory," bowls, balls and metal rods talked, jumped and demanded attention. Juggling was used throughout as an activity to transform these unruly objects into gold, as well as a way of controlling their inherent energies. The act's finale involved the alchemists in three-ball routines that built to a climax of dozens of balls raining down on them.
Although Berky juggles well, his greater skill is manipulating people. Throughout the performance he lovingly seduced the audience into joining him in his clowning. As the audience clapped and used hands as rabbit ears, Berky made it clear that without this communal action of the performer and the audience, the alchemical transformation would not be possible.
Ultimately, Berky was his own philosopher's stone as he revealed the wisdom of the clown's foolishness. "Alchemy is the search for truth or the essence, whether it be lead to gold or a journey of the spirit. Lead and gold is just a metaphor for the other journey," he said.
Moschen was the master manipulator. Appearing to be as much moved as mover, he responded to objects with a sense of wonder, and with the partnering grace of a dancer. Crystal balls and metal wands moved across the stage as elusive combinations of light, space and substance.
In the second act, "Vital Principles," both performers whirled around the stage in long robes, continuing their search for transformation. Moschen's solo sequence, "Light," was a pas-de-deux for juggler and single crystal ball. Berky's solo, "Action," revealed him trying to imitate the weightless freedom of the juggler's crystal with his red clown's nose.
This was followed by an extended segment during which he built upon the relationship with the audience established in the first act. Sputtering, "let me see..." on his kazoo while looking for an audience victim, he created a space where even a man in a business suit could dance in a tutu -- if not with particular grace or dignity, at least with personal pride in his spirit and daring.
"... in what I do, the clown is not successful unless the person onstage is successful... the final statement is that we are all funny and our humor binds us together." - Bob Berky
Both performers briefly reunite for the final section, "Fire." Swinging fire torches and creating patterns of sound and light, Berky and Moschen suddenly appeared like heroic figures, struggling with the dark and cold. Stripped of props and costumes, they appeared in the midst of ribbons of light, powerful yet vulnerable.
Not unlike the ballets of George Ballanchine, the finale of "The Alchemedians" created emotion without narrative. The image of the juggler and clown, revealed as ridiculous and sublime, lingered even after the torches were extinguished.
"... if we can touch that simplicity at the root of us and really make it vibrate, we'll go out of a theatre saying not `wasn't he a good performer?' but rather `aren't we all great!'" - Bob Berky
Reg Bacon - headed for the Great White Way next spring
As the curtain goes up on the new season, it seems certain that jugglers will once again be seen center stage. One who seems certain to be there is Reg Bacon, "Mr. Slim." Bacon has been accepted for a part in "Street Magic," an adult fairy tale that explores the theme of taking time to smell the flowers as you struggle through life.
Bacon will play a fantasy vaudevillian who materializes on stage to illustrate the magical moments of life that we often miss. He reported he will be manipulating hats and cigar boxes, as well as riding a unicycle and doing song and dance. Though details were not set at press time, Bacon said the show was expected to open next Spring.
At a time when Broadway needs infusions of vital, significant and entertaining work, it is encouraging and exciting to see juggling's potential for "taking" stage in the New York theatre.