We Need This

The San Francisco performance ensemble Mugwumpin went through a rebirth in the last year after the departure of cofounder Denmo Ibrahim, with a bunch of new members brought into the company and a new structure to the season, in which a series of thematically related one-shot site-specific performances culminate in the creation of the year’s full-length theatrical production. This inaugural season was designated the Year of Possessions, a topic explored from multiple angles in the spellbinding patchwork that is the season centerpiece, This Is All I Need.

Christopher W. White and Madeline H.D. Brown. Photo by Dafna Kory

The stage is dominated by a solid wall of uniform file boxes stacked nearly to the ceiling. Each is labeled in magic marker: VHS, love letters, mortgage, audit 2009, yarn, bottle caps, nail clippers, CD cases, Florida, snow globes, destroy Aug 2010, strawberries, camping supplies, door. Onto the top of this stack is added a box of cell phones and other items of value borrowed from the audience as a way of putting their own possessions into perspective.

In the center of the stage is a tall pile of clothes, tennis rackets, hats, lamps, bowling pins and boom boxes, which the four actors congregate around with rapt expressions like cavemen around a monolith. All at once they start giddily dismantling it, frantically, jealously hoarding items, sometimes fighting over then, and dragging them to separate corners of the stage.

Then they start launching into competing monologues about the personal stories behind particular possessions they found in the pile—not addressing each other but eyeing each other impatiently waiting for their chance to talk. Without knowing much about the genesis of this piece, conceived and cowritten by the ensemble, my impression was that these segments sound as if they’re based on the confessions of real people—which certainly seems possible, given that one of the earlier one-shot events, I Have This _____ [Possessional Confessional], involved interviewing audience members about their possessions. Company cofounder and artistic director Christopher W. White rattles off a particularly unnerving spiel about a set of knives picked up while bumming around in Florence, breathing heavy and a little wild-eyed. Joe Estlack shows off an electric lamp that he says was the inspiration for the iconic Pixar animated short.

Eating strawberries from one of those small green plastic baskets they come in, Madeline H. D. Brown delivers a rambling monologue about wanting to buy one of the old gutted movie palaces along Mission Street and turn it into an artists’ live-work collective that’s made completely riveting by the fact that while she’s talking the other three are building a tower of those little green baskets all around her. As it slowly rises claustrophobically from waist high to neck high and beyond, she becomes more and more overwhelmed by all the logistical challenges that would inevitably arise in such an endeavor. Finally she exclaims, “I have to sing now,” and launches into lovely duet with White of the 1926 pop song “Tonight You Belong to Me,” much as it was sung by Bernadette Peters and Steve Martin in The Jerk. It’s an appropriate reference for a show like this, not for anything in the lyrics themselves but because that movie also had a memorable scene in which Martin proclaimed that he didn’t need any of his many possessions and then grabbed a bunch of random knickknacks that he decided he did need on his way out the door. The play’s title, This Is All I Need, harks back to that scene.

The staging by codirectors Liz Lisle and Jonathan Spector makes marvelous use of space and movement in often hilariously unexpected ways. Certain boxes are pulled out of the towering wall of boxes to play a part in one scene or another, one becoming a diorama, several others a door. At one point White puts on dozens of shirts and jackets over each other until he looks like a sort of Michelin Man and you start to worry he’s going to pass out. Sometimes two or more performers will tell the same story in the same words at the same time, but not quite in sync, each giving his or her own unique tone to the story. It’s experimental without ever seeming abstruse: even if you don’t know exactly why something is happening, it’s entertaining enough in its own right to just enjoy the ride.

There are a few conventional scenes with dialogue interspersed between the direct-address or movement-based passages, some of them involving characters to which we return periodically throughout the course of the show. One thread involves a transaction between two extremely formal and somewhat suspicious collectors initially played by Brown and Estlack but portrayed by everyone else at one point or another. Another very funny one features Erin Mei-Ling Stuart as a young woman whose possessions have all disappeared but may reappear at any moment and Estlack as a boisterous traveling salesman of whatever goods or services she might need. These interwoven threads don’t tie together often, but it happens occasionally. A boarskin handbag passed down from generation to generation that Brown describes when everyone’s showing off their stuff early in the show pops up again in the hands of her snobby collector.

All told it’s a dizzying, endlessly inventive 90 minutes that seldom if ever drags. It’s a very sharp, often very funny piece, and if this is the sort of thing we can expect from Mugwumpin mark 2.0, I have to say, we may not have known it, but this is what we need.

This Is All I Need
Through September 4
2840 Mariposa St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #84 of 2010, attended August 9.

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