That can be a good thing. But in the case of Evaporated Milk Society's latest piece, The Queen's Story, it made for an entrancing visual experience that left me in a bit of a fog.
The brainchild of Randall Cohn and Allison Waters, with contributions from their cast, it's been called "a meditation," and it may well be. But one person's mantra is another's pig Latin.
The show features a queen who's a thousand years old and oversees a decaying empire called Verdun, which is the setting for a storytelling contest. The submissions, dramatized by performers such as Megan Downes and Corrie Van Ausdal, are heavy with myth and fantasy and laced with hints of homicide. The prevailing thread through all of them is that the queen, at last, must die for the empire to turn its fortunes around.
The stories, though, are arch and confusing. They're composed to be, at best, anti-commercial, which is the point of everything avant-garde, but are not always rich with dividends. There wasn't one that sold me anything but general angst. The message isn't helped by the echoes in the warehouse space, interestingly laid out though it is. The acoustics are brutal, making passages from performers facing away from you fairly unintelligible. It might as well have been in Dutch.
The design of the performance space and costumes, however, make an impression. Audience members sit in one of four corners, on wooden platforms, hay bales or a Persian rug splayed across a mound of sand. One of the platforms seems to teeter on a tower of rocks with a gurgling brook lapping at its feet. And behind two of the seating areas is a makeshift forest of bare trees, where the action implies a winter of discontent.
Pure engineering has gone into the center of the space, where an elaborate yet provisional pulley system is weighted at either end by concrete blocks and wooden windows. They're raised and lowered throughout the show, swinging precariously above the performers' heads at times.
Two dozen plastic milk crates figure in both the choreography (including well-timed tossing and juggling) and the headgear. Among the other noteworthy wardrobe choices are military uniforms affixed with a mane and a tail for the two actors who play horses, and the mossy tutu on a ballerina who has seemingly been dredged up from the deep. The overall experience reminds us that when words falter, you'd better treat the eye. Postscript: For marketing savvy, one has to give props to the Missouri Repertory Theatre, whose production of Metamorphoses closed last weekend. The company never concealed that Metamorphoses was not a family show, and its ads in mainstream publications issued a caveat: "Warning: Contains Adult Material."
What came to my attention were the ads in gay publications such as Extra that read: "Warning: Contains Male Nudity."
Warning? More like the carrot on the stick, confirms Laura Muir, the Rep's communications director. "We weren't warning them," she says. "We were telling them.
"It wasn't a set marketing strategy from the beginning," she adds. "But we're definitely interested in the gay market, and we're looking to enhance our outreach to that demographic." Muir recalls one other show with separate campaigns for gay and straight audiences. "For Guys and Dolls ... we used the same picture for both ads but camped it up for the gay publications."
Though Muir says the Rep's marketing staff can't track attendance based on specific ad placement, they'd be advised not to fix what ain't broke. Both shows could boast several sold-out houses.