Review: ‘Pandaemonium’ Gives Unhappiness a Light Touch


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Geoff Sobelle, in this production directed by Lars Jan that is part physical theater and part cinematic fantasy.

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Paul B. Goode

Somewhere in the American desert, a man and a woman recline on beach chairs under a drive-in movie screen. Something is not right between them. Soon, she’ll break out divorce papers; he’ll break out the booze. It’s a scene of emptiness and estrangement. But in “Pandaemonium,” a clever hybrid of physical theater and cinema that had its local debut at New York Live Arts on Wednesday, much of the alienation is treated lightly. When the show is working, the unhappiness is enjoyable.

Much of the pleasure, right from the start, comes from the songs of Xander Duell. A rumpled troubadour, he sings pessimistic lyrics in sweet melodies sometimes reminiscent of Brian Wilson. His words are only the words, since the central performers, Nichole Canuso and Geoff Sobelle, don’t speak.

How they interact — or how they interact through Pablo N. Molina’s video design — is the other chief pleasure. We see Ms. Canuso on one side of the stage and Mr. Sobelle on the other, both sitting alone at a table. But on the movie screen, the live video images overlap and the tables merge into one. Because of camera angles, when the performers face each other onstage, their video avatars face away, and vice versa. It’s a cunning representation of the psychological distance between them, and the adroitness of the trick makes it amusing.

Later, it’s also amusing when Ms. Canuso thrusts her teary face close to a camera and the screen shows her driving to the sounds of Mr. Duell’s terrific cover of “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

Without video or props, though, the show’s imagination falters. The duets when Ms. Canuso and Mr. Sobelle finally come together, rolling around and throwing in gratuitous headstands, are thin and mawkish. It’s only the virtual sections, which we witness being constructed, that are affecting.

Could that be on purpose? The production, directed by Lars Jan, is also about cinematic fantasy. Filmed scenes of the performers wandering the Mojave Desert mix with snippets of the 1970 Antonioni film “Zabriskie Point.” But “Pandaemonium,” indulging in its own acid-trip moments, seems to mimic rather than defend or comment on the flaws of that notoriously bad, gorgeously photographed movie. Here, too, the skill is greater than the substance.

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