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Performance Review:

"DEATH’S DREAM KINGDOM" & "THE WASTELAND," Adler Danztheatre Project at Belle Plaine Studios


T.S. Eliot’s elusive and severely introspective poetry can pose a few paradoxes for performing artists eager to journey through his versified vivisection of human longing on stage. The onomatopoeic-inspired images ringing through Eliot’s work are well suited to performance as are the luminous and disturbing textures of a dramatic monologue like "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." On the other hand, "The Wasteland" – told primarily through stream-of-consciousness – can have a tendency to meander into theatrical oblivion.

Ellyzabeth Adler, founder of the multidisciplinary Adler Danztheatre Project, has met some of those challenges head-on in her environmental/movement-based performance piece, "Death’s Dream Kingdom" and "The Wasteland," which traveled through different rooms of the artfully worn Belle Plaine Studios April 12-27. Her selections of more fluidly performable and thematically unified excerpts from T.S. Eliot’s works aimed to lend cohesion to this engaging – if not fully realized – multimedia experiment.

Ironically, the opening segment – which combines "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," "The Hollow Men" and "Ash Wednesday" – drifts into the realm of self-conscious abstraction. And yet one might expect "Prufrock," the evocative, theatrically rich poem about the title upper-class character’s search for inner peace, to translate seamlessly to the stage. "The Wasteland," in all its untamed ephemeral ponderings, turns out to be better suited to the live arena, perhaps because Adler has more effectively streamlined her linking of different art forms. The suggested sense of bliss and dread achieved in "The Wasteland" gets tangled in "Death’s Dream Kingdom’s" distracting layers of imagery.

The 90-minute performance begins in the lobby as some actors blend seamlessly with audience members, and Katie Binder’s morning-coat and spats-clad Prufock hobbles in. Recitations begin unexpectedly, and Adler makes intriguing use of the Belle Plaine Studios’ lobby windows from which we can see two bolder and more confrontational versions of the Prufrock characters or "Hollow Men" outside (Heather Tyler and Sarah Rose Grillo) pacing back and forth.

Now on a slightly surreal plane, we are ready to be guided by three nymph-like characters in white (reminiscent of "In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo") into another part of the building, where a pantomimic struggle ensues – most notably demonstrated by Prufrock being precipitously pushed around the playing area, skidding and sliding as the ethereal "Michelangelo Women" (Susie Anderson, Kim Kohler and Margaret Reynolds) tempt and rebuke him.

Two other performers, Kevin Gladish and E. Vincent Teninty, are part of the ominous chorus of "Hollow Men" ushering Prufrock toward a death of the soul and the audience into a separate monastic, candle-lit room bathed in flowing cloth waves and water-filled vessels. It is here that Prufrock is meant to realize how it would have been better for him to risk death by drowning than to have "waked" to ultimately "drown" in the deadened glow of a spiritually vapid society.

But, throughout this section – featuring a surprisingly unadventurous and unenlightening series of balletic variations – Adler does not smoothly or compellingly bring these whispers of ideas into focus. The images amble along rather than distill the essence of Eliot’s meticulously chosen words. The performers also never fully embody the concretely human yet metaphoric aspects of their characters. In fact, the characters sort of float in ambiguous desolation – but in a way that’s more confusing than thematically revealing. Musical selections – from Astor Piazzola’s "Tango Apasiando" to Beethoven’s "Moonlight Sonata" -- tend toward the tired and disjointed.

It isn’t until we arrive at "The Wasteland" – albeit still a tough bear to wrestle in a dramatic setting – that Adler gently joins artistic forces, even to the point of making the exposed-brick walls of the space speak with a wizened sense of melancholy. On the night I attended, the slide projector was not working for the performance of "Death’s Dream Kingdom." However, for "The Wasteland" in the second act, Adler replaced the machine and combined both sets of some of the most mortality-wrenching black-and-white photos by Nate Bettinger and Gigi Norcross.

When the shadows of the four ensemble members –Gladish, Kaja Peters, Kerensa Peterson and Teninty – unobtrusively get superimposed on, say an image of a dead tree facing a treacherous sea, a whole other spine-chilling dramatic universe opens up. And, despite an almost inherent pitfall of out-of-context poetic ramblings, "The Wasteland" conveys in a tactile, aesthetically gorgeous way, the mystical power of fragmented moments weaving through our minds.

The projected photos enhance this piece, alternating between urban decay and urban renewal – and the aching beauty of structures corroded over time. One image has the ability to simultaneously assault and encourage viewers to be at peace with their inevitable mortality: a figure walking into a what appears to be a radioactive void under the L tracks – an icicle dangling in the foreground.

The entire performance piece requires such quietly evocative contrasts. Otherwise, it can provoke an unintentional malaise in the audience or, worse yet, too literally mirror Eliot’s tone of heart-crushing monotony.

For more information on Adler Danztheatre Project, call 773-486-8261 or e-mail

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