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A CurtainUp Review

70 Hill Lane
By Les Gutman

If theater by its nature is ephemeral, most of the productions at Performance Space 122 would have to be described as evanescent. So much so that many productions come and go before CurtainUp ever gets around to reviewing them. That's unfortunate because P.S. 122 has a well-deserved reputation as Ground Zero of experimental theater in the U.S., if not the world.

Having come all the way across the Atlantic from London, Improbable Theater's production of 70 Hill Lane is taking up residence for an improbably long time -- almost three weeks. It is therefore possible not only for CurtainUp to review the show, but also for any interested readers to catch a performance before it closes.

What are the rewards? An intimate and endearing performance that is so long on inventiveness that its shortcomings can almost be forgiven. Conceived, written and performed by the engaging Phelim McDermott (with the assistance in the latter two respects by Guy Dartnell and Steve Tiplady), it relates the goings-on at the titled address, which was McDermott's childhood home. These include the presence of a "real" ghost, nicknamed "Polty," as well as the usual familial ghosts that have haunted his growing up.

What separates the performance from the norm is the means by which it is told. Using little more than newspaper and cellophane tape (lots of it), the cast of three fashions and animates puppets, builds houses -- inside and out -- and entertain.
The basic ghost story is related with a suitable creepiness. At age 15, McDermott encountered a ghost in his house, and it has affected his life. He interweaves this tale with a tour of his life -- "then and now," in his words, annotated by lessons he learned from this ghost. (In the program notes, he says that, as he developed the show, he discovered other stories from the house that "needed to be told".) This broader story comes across as more of a jumble of impressions than as an integrated whole. Although generally fun to hear and watch, its points are sometimes elusive. We can connect-the-dots between his feelings toward his parents and the apparition's message, but this nexus would be more satisfying had it been painted with a firmer brush.

Still, McDermott's illumination of the fuzzy area between the real and the imagined has a seriousness and an originality that warrants our attention. He explores the notion that it really doesn't matter: our lives are influenced by these forces, and their source -- even if just in our minds -- doesn't change that. The actors decidedly anti-"in-the-moment" approach underscores this idea.

The spare stage is enormously enhanced by Colin Grenfell's lighting, especially effectively in evoking the essence of the poltergeist. If the puppets manufactured before our eyes enlarge the cast considerably, the lighting provides their vitality. The sparkling images created by the combination of crinkled tape and light linger long after the performance. Ben Parks' performance of his own exceptionally appropriate musical compositions on a wide range of instruments go far in fleshing out the moods of this imaginative imported treat.

by Phelim McDermott 
Directed by Lee Simpson 
starring Phelim McDermott with Guy Dartnell and Steve Tiplady 
P.S. 122, 150 First Avenue (at 9th Street) (212) 477-5288 
January 1 - 18, 1998; reviewed by Les Gutman 1/09/98
© January 1998, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.

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