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IMPRESSIONS: Great Jones Repertory in “Aristotle Thinks Again” at LaMaMa ETC

IMPRESSIONS: Great Jones Repertory in “Aristotle Thinks Again” at LaMaMa ETC
Sarah Cecilia Bukowski

By Sarah Cecilia Bukowski
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Published on February 1, 2024
Photo by Maria Baranova

Directed & Choreographed by Dan Safer

Performed, co-created, and co-choreographed by maura nguyen donohue, John Maria Gutierrez, Valois Mickens, Kim Savarino, and Marcus McGregor
Text by Chuck Mee  //  Original Music by Julia Kent  // Voice on Radio: Scott Shepherd //  Lights by Jay Ryan
Set by Sara Brown  //  Costumes by Alicia Austin  // 
Sound Design by Attilio Rigotti
Assistance and Coffee by William Fock  //  Scenic Painters: Verose Agbing, Ishita Bhimavarapu, Ryn Moore, LJ Patterson, Quentin Smith

Aristotle Thinks Again runs through February 4, 2024 at LaMaMa Experimental Theatre Club

UPDATE: Due to popular demand, two more shows have been added on February 10 and 11, 2024. Click here

Greek philosophy, literature, drama, and mythology make up a cultural ecology rich with social and political nuance and shot through with the marvelous chaos of the human spirit. LaMaMa Experimental Theatre Club is seeking to exploit this wealth and explode its contemporary implications through its two-part Humanismo: Ancient Future Series, which adapts and challenges the works of Aristotle and Euripides. In its first installment, director and choreographer Dan Safer, of LaMaMa company-in-residence Witness Relocation, takes on Aristotle in a daring work of physical theatre that oscillates wildly between violence, tenderness, absurdity, and the bizarre.

The work takes as its (literal) backdrop Renaissance painter Raphael’s The School of Athens — crudely and cheekily defaced — which depicts Plato and Aristotle at the center of a debate among a host of other artists and thinkers. While a strong lineage links these two canonical figures, their philosophical foundations also differ markedly. In Aristotle Thinks Again, Safer stages a scathing critique of Aristotle’s views on gender (in brief, the philosopher upheld an innate difference between the genders and asserted the natural physical and intellectual dominance of men over women). Through an ever-shifting stream of energetic vignettes, Safer and the five electrifying performers of Great Jones Repertory show how this paradigm persists from Greek mythology to present day reality and how its implications reverberate through our lives.

Aristotle Thinks Again directed by Dan Safer; photo by Maria Baranova

Amid an often outrageous panoply of dance, text, music, and prop comedy, absurdity and sincerity spar over the blurry line between fantasy and reality. Draped in an emerald green Grecian-style dress fringed in gold, Valois Mickens makes recurring appearances to narrate (with an rising tone of mockery) the tangled web of salacious sexual violence among gods and humans in the world of Greek mythology. She speaks and moves with reluctant authority and liberal physicality, serving as both contextual frame and grounding center.

For the rest of the cast, cloying heteronormative duets contrast with thrashing masked group dances and deadpan instructional movement narration as they cycle through an exhausting number of costume changes. Clad in togas or business suits, faces bare or engulfed in masks, the performers retain their signature kinetic verve with simultaneous precision and abandon. Their characterizations seem to turn on a dime, toggling between casual naturalism, high camp, sordid drama, and menacing violence, all delivered with piercingly open affect. John Maria Gutierrez stands out in his deft scaling of the spectrum between gentle and grotesque.

Safer’s direction and choreography shape a relentless space to interrogate his subject matter from many vantage points. Gender relations and gendered social expectations find expression equally in extended monologues, organized unisons, and utter chaos, using parodic performativity, exaggerated gestures, and gruesome imagery to raise the temperature in the room. What at first seem like scattered fragments begin to cohere into a tenuous whole, only to be shattered again in an ongoing cycle of destruction that rebuilds over and over using the same increasingly fragile materials.

Aristotle Thinks Again directed by Dan Safer; photo by Maria Baranova

The stage fills and empties through countless cycles as outward physical violence morphs into inward psychological violence in escalating crises of life, death, love, and chance. Rambling confessions spiral into desperate pleas as stories beget questions with no good answer. The questions of human nature and humanity’s apocalyptic end become indelibly intertwined. Love is held up as a saving grace and maligned as a fatal force. Human and ecological scales collide in a cascade of evocative movement monologues that connect all things intimate and grand. We scream, we twirl, we mask and unmask, we make popcorn. We are mere sheep wandering through a world indifferent to our whims and woes.

As the restless performers find and make space for themselves and each other in turn, a realm of endless possibility opens up in all its flawed beauty. “What if the world doesn’t end?” “What do you do if shit just sucks?” Perhaps we just keep tearing things apart and piecing them back together with the hope that someday they’ll start to make sense, or that making sense won’t matter anymore.

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