KPBS AIRDATE: AUGUST 12, 1998
It’s a legendary relationship. You’ve heard about it, read about it, seen it on T-shirts: The indivisible bond between men and duct tape.
But for the Improbable Theatre company, perhaps the gummy beloved was too… dark, not dramatic enough, not… transparent enough. So they wrapped their piece in the lighter, more flexible, cellophane tape. Their “70 Hill Lane” is a proverbial sticky wicket: Three Englishmen and a roll of Scotch. It’s performance art that’s live, but taped.
During the production, whose title refers to the childhood address of creator/performer Phelim McDermott, he and his two cohorts, Guy Dartnell and Steve Tiplady, build McDermott’s Manchester, England backward-facing edifice, as well as the poltergeist that haunted it, mischievously tossing objects around the house when McDermott was a gawky young adolescent. Using bits of newspaper and the ubiquitous adhesive, they create fantasy, imagery and stage wizardry, moving in and out of the present and the past: McDermott’s birth, his grandma’s death, his hapless love-life and his continued belief in things ineffable and inexplicable.
As directed by Lee Simpson, the piece seems more improvisational than it is; McDermott talks conspiratorially to the audience, directly addressing one or two latecomers or early-leavers, but every move, every sssssstretch and sssssnnnnnnap! of tape, every six-handed puppet-walk, is obviously tightly choreographed, and backed by eerie, sometimes irritating, live percussive sound. Equal parts monologue, puppet theater, sketch comedy, autobio-performance art, fable, myth and dream, the production has some truly magical moments. But it’s overly chatty and repetitive, and seems long at 98 minutes.
McDermott has a winning, innocent, self-deprecating charm, and his writing is often poetic and incredibly imagistic. Frequently, the tape-action redundantly illustrates the scenes and settings he so vividly describes. We get a detailed, and ultimately unnecessary, portrait of every room and stick of furniture in both childhood and adult abodes, long setups with minimal return. Tiplady and Dartnell don’t say much, though they get creative credits, but they are funny as McDermott’s musically lamenting parents, in a fantasy scene of what actually goes on at home when the kid’s away.
Alas, things degenerate into the silly and adolescent (ya gotta love that British humor); it is, after all, three grown men up there playing with paper and tape. But sometimes, the piece really makes a visceral impression, when lighting and puppet and tape and language conspire, as in the birth-rebirth episodes that frame the piece. The angst-ridden, neurotically lovable hero recounts his own terrors and suspicions, and in the process, helps us refocus our own fears and imaginings, and reminds us “what a strange place the world is,” a place where “there are no certainties,” where the natural and the supernatural often converge.
We’re all a bit like McDermott, living in shadow and light, haunting ourselves with our pasts. Polty, in fact, gets some of the most life-changing lines. But, McDermott tells us, “Your troublemaker is your teacher.”
Oblique and metaphorical at times and overly concrete at others, it’s an odd medium for a semi-serious message — swaddled in strips of tacky wrap. But in its way, the Improbable Theatre really sticks it to you.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.