Review: DayBoyNightGirl by DA! Theatre Collective
by David Glen Robinson
I walked two blocks to reach the Long Center, with its blackbox Rollins Studio Theatre, where DayBoyNightGirl played. Without a doubt, the spectacular 21st century cityscape of downtown Austin upstages every performance staged there. After all, the downtown view is the first thing one sees upon arriving at the Long Center. DayBoyNightGirl pushed back admirably against the sensory overload. The show was spectacular at every level.
If you’re tired of small plays in small theatres, I offer you my fascination with small companies that do enormous things with their talents. Da! Theatre Collective is one such company, and DayBoyNightGirl is enormous in its scope and bold execution, without ever becoming pretentious, precious or trite. The piece is a fine example of multiple-arts performance, showcased for us recently by the offerings of the Fusebox Festival. It is my hope that multiple-arts companies thrive and create a dominant trend in American theatre. They offer freshness and quite possibly true originality.
The source of Da! Theatre Collective’s creative diversity lies in the company’s founders. Heather Huggins and Lisa del Rosario have international backgrounds in theatre and dance, and their collaborations seem to balance these major branches of the fine arts. Kirk German is a gifted playwright; the stage play of DayBoyNightGirl is brilliant (adapted from a story by George MacDonald); the language never lapses into mere functional storytelling, but at times the words in the mouths of the actors seem to vault into iambic hexameter, giving an Elizabethan lilt to many of the text passages. The thing sparkles.
The story itself is a mythic tale, almost a fairy tale or a 21st century creation myth. A nobleman named Lord Watho, played by award-winner Jude Hickey, grows bored in his castle and designs a cruel experiment on human beings. Only with the progress of the performance do we learn that he is a sorcerer and that his castle is actually an illusion of captivating power. He sequesters Vesper, played by del Rosario, in his catacombs as she gestates her child, Nycteris (played by Sophia Franzella). Then as Vesper, the word’s root meaning dusk or evening, gives birth to Nycteris the word’s root meaning night or girl of night, we begin our symbolic reading of the play’s characters, texts, movements, sounds and colors. The tale becomes elemental and remains so. At the same time, it is accessible; the children in the audience seemed to watch the story raptly.
The other half of Watho’s experiment is the production of a boy, Photogen (played by Jacob Trussell), who is raised in light and never knows darkness. Much of the story is told in delightfully abstracted movement with an ensemble choreographed by del Rosario. The blocking and movement take such virtuoso turns as miming all hand props and set pieces. Likewise, the furnishings of the castle and rocks, trees and beasts of the field are formed by Pilobolus-like bunchings of the ensemble. Here, inventiveness is at a premium, and this company meets its challenges in relaxed, almost off-hand fashion. And so the performance proceeds, giving us change, more change, and change yet again when Nycteris sings in Act II.
The lighting design was almost unique. It is said of artists that they gain expressiveness when they transcend their technique. This may also be said of lighting designer Jason Amato, who shaped the space, created day and night, and colored all their moods with photons. All the while Amato made it look effortless. This is no mean compliment, as anyone knows who has hung and focused lighting instruments.
The company embraced as many design and arts fields as possible, including exquisite music composed for the piece by Catherine Davis and performed live by Davis on piano, Bob Hoffnar on pedal steel guitar and Rachel Horvitz on cello. Hearing pedal steel guitar music outside its usual confines in country music adds much to the otherworldly and mythic atmosphere of any show. The avant-garde costumes by Erica Lambert gave an integrated, consistent look to the cast while remaining functional and allowing a wide range of movement.
Perhaps the most unusual electic element was the use of American Sign Language, ASL, in the piece. The character of Aurora, introduced as a deaf and mute character and played by Lainey Murphy, spoke only in ASL. But this was a one-way channel. Other characters spoke normally to her, without using ASL, and on the receiving end they seemed to understand Aurora’s hand gestures perfectly. Voiceover informed the audience of what was going on in her scenes. One supposes Aurora was a champion lip reader.
On the whole, of course, the theatrical values expressed by DayBoyNightGirl gave it a look wholly apart from any conventional stage play or dance performance. Also, the performance could not be classed as nu-opera, as produced locally at The Vortex on the east side, because the cast does not sing most or all of the lyrics; in fact, Nycteris’ song is the only music sung by a character in the entire show. The nearest comparative performance style or philosophy would be Robert Wilson’s productions of the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, such as Einstein on the Beach (with Philip Glass, usually described simplistically as an opera) or Danton’s Death and other works produced mostly in Europe. The shared comparative features include performance eclecticism, highly abstracted sets, scene-changing by lighting sets on the cyclorama and avant-garde music and costumes. And above all, the work of art is an imaginative journey away from the familiar.
It is the frustration of arts writing that a laudatory piece of writing about a worthy show is posted or printed after the production run closes. So it is here. I want to tell everyone to see this show, but its run will be finished when I finish writing this. I can only tell the public to watch for the next performance by Da! Theatre Collective. They produce only about one or two shows per year. The interested should monitor arts listings – including especially AustinLiveTheatre.com --for their next production.
701 Riverside at South First,
Austin, TX, 78704