HomeLife StyleReview: A Dance Duo’s Committed High Jinks Interruptus

Review: A Dance Duo’s Committed High Jinks Interruptus

A woman in a sparkly red dress makes a grand gesture. Then she notices that she’s being watched and suddenly looks like a squirrel that has realized it isn’t alone. She tries to make another grand gesture only to be stymied when the Bubble Wrap under her feet pops. Soon she is joined by a woman in a sparkly black dress who seems trapped in the same situation, reaching for elegance only to have that ideal pop, again and again. The second woman hunches over and hyperventilates.

This is how we meet Lisa Fagan and Lena Engelstein in their experimental dance-theater work “Deepe Darknesse.” At Collapsable Hole, the scruffy West Village space where this absurdist exercise was performed this weekend as part of the New York Live Arts Live Artery festival, they are close to audience members, continually making eye contact with them. This heightens the sense of danger. You don’t know what these zanies might do.

First, they break into a demented drill team routine, kicking and breathing hard. Occasionally, a 1960s Italian pop song comes on — it’s “Stasera” by Cocki Mazzetti — and their frantic dancing acquires some bounce and flirtatious charm. Not for long, though. Interruption is the show’s constant.

During periodic blackouts we learn that Fagan and Engelstein aren’t alone. Hannah Mitchell serves as a straight-faced stagehand, who applies too much makeup to the women by the light of a headlamp. The performance space is a rehearsal studio that hasn’t been gussied up much, and the performers make full use of it. They take food and wine from the refrigerator and consume it next to a microphone. (Trips to the offstage toilet are also amplified.) They use the microwave. They stand in the sink.

Oh, and all of this and the work’s title have something to do to Apuleius’ “The Golden Ass,” the picaresque ancient Roman novel in which the protagonist suffers through various travails — often interrupted by other stories — after being transformed into a donkey. At one point, Engelstein, gripping a loaf of bread in each hand, tries to recite an episode from the novel in an archaic translation but has to keep asking for her lines, which Mitchell supplies in a voice like that of Siri.

This is funny, but Apuleius is ultimately just more material, more Bubble Wrap to pop. Fagan and Engelstein employ it less for meaning and thematic resonance (humbling transformation) than as a structural model. “Deepe Darknesse” is certainly picaresque. Its randomness is carefully worked out but also feels free and spontaneous in spots. Its greatest pleasures are the small, temporarily resolving actions that operate like punchlines — as when, while the two women grapple in a pretzely cantilevered balance, Engelstein uses a foot to pick up a cigarette from the floor and plant it in Fagan’s mouth.

These performers are fully committed comics, unafraid to make donkeys of themselves, and they keep up the tension of potential peril. The recklessness with which they throw a laptop computer makes you worry a bit for them and for yourself. This tension helps hold together the disparate parts, and “Deepe Darknesse” develops its own loony logic. After the recitation of an ancient Roman novel falls apart, what deus ex machina could save the show? Another pop song by Cocki Mazzetti, of course.

“Deepe Darknesse”

Through Monday at Collapsable Hole; newyorklivearts.org.

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