Review: ‘Hugo Ball: a Dada puppet AdveNTuRe!!/?1!!?? at Pointless Theatre Company

The whooshing, passionate ride that is Hugo Ball: a Dada puppet AdveNTuRe!!/?1!!?? – an original piece by DC’s perennial enfant terrible, Pointless Theatre Company – masquerades as a simple biography of the titular German artist. Ball, along with his wife Emmy Hennings and a rogues gallery of other Modernist iconoclasts, coined the term “Dada” at Ball’s Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich exactly one century ago this year. Pointless Theatre never squanders an opportunity to tell a simple story in a spectacular fashion, and Hugo Ball is no different. Instead, Director Matt Reckeweg and the whole hilarious ensemble ruthlessly rifle through every theatrical tool at their disposal – from opera and bawdy humor to some crazy Brechtian meta commentary (not to mention over 200 props) – to present a show that is as anarchic, joyful, and cuttingly satirical in its telling as in the subject himself.

The Ensemble. Photo by Rachel Parks.
The Ensemble. Photo by Rachel Parks.

In the program note, Artistic Directors Patti Kalil and Matt Reckeweg describe a piece of the Pointless Theatre philosophy: “[considering] performers and designers as equally essential storytellers.” And indeed, Patti Kalil – who spearheaded designs for the set, puppets, and masks in Hugo Ball – creates bona fide works of art for this show. There is the enormous silken pole puppet (voiced by several harmonizing ensemble members) that becomes a hilarious take on the “angelic herald”. There are the breathtaking, terrifying oversized witches’ masks. And there is Hugo himself: a jumble of wooden rods for the arms and legs, a severe Modernist square for the torso, and an actual red rubber ball for the head.

The entire ensemble: Frank Cevarich, Kyra Corradin, Madeline Key, Sadie Leigh, Devin Mahoney, Hillary Morrow, Stacy Musselman, Matthew Sparacino, Scott Whalen, and Sarah Wilby – take turns at operating and/or voicing Hugo, creating an inherently multi-dimensional character and reinforcing the collectivist artistic impulse that Dada so embraced.

There are few too many delicious acting moments to count, and the whole ensemble is skilled at bringing together manic energy with specific character choices. While too numerous to mention one by one, here are some acting takeaways:

Hillary Morrow is responsible for my Most Memorable Stage Picture of 2016 Thus Far: in full Bugs Bunny Viking drag, belting German opera while flogging Hugo Ball with one of her gigantic blonde braids.

Devin Mahoney is a hoot as crucified Jesus!

Scott Whalen brings an intense and almost manic physicality that made me uncomfortable in a very Dadaist way.

Sarah Wilby played my two favorite characters: Hugo’s horny mother (who helpfully wears a funny hat with “MOM” writ large across the top) and one of two interrupting intellectuals who abruptly stop the show in a few places to admiringly shout “Wow!” and sing the praises of their own work in an exaggerated and pretentious manner.

The spirit of dada is pretty freaking fun. I mean, this is the movement to which Duchamp’s famous urinal sculpture, “Fountain,” is now attributed. But what is remarkable about Pointless’ production is not how reckless and joyful it is, but in fact how structured and focused it is.

Director Matt Reckeweg and playwright David Lloyd Olson keep the narrative drum tight and laser focused. The show moves deliberately through the many stages of Ball’s life, from his early upbringing in Germany to the founding of the infamous Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, to Ball’s eventual disownment of the Dada movement and his embrace of near-monastic Catholicism towards the end of his life. These stages are punctuated by helpful posters (“Manifesto”, “Zurich”, etc.) read out by members of the ensemble. But even sans posters, playwright David Lloyd Olson keeps the scenes brief and to the point. This is fitting for a movement that embraced what-you-see-is-what-you-get 50 years before Warhol’s soup cans.

The Ensemble. Photo by Artur Kalil.
The Ensemble. Photo by Artur Kalil.

The puppet designers are not the only ones who get to have fun with the spirit of dada. Lighting Designer Mary Keegan hurls through cues at an epileptic pace, while Composer and Music Director Aaron Bliden and Sound Designer Michael Winch create a soundscape that hearkens back to the music of the early 20th century without getting bogged down in the period. Costume Designer Lee Gerstenhaber dresses the ensemble relatively simply (the Viking Queen being a notable exception), the better to showcase every other wild element being thrown at you.

Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, and their ilk reacted to the unprecedented horror of World War I by inventing an equally unprecedented style of art, one that embraced paradoxes and gleefully shattered accepted ideas about art. Pointless’ Hugo Ball is not as controversial or as earth shaking as the man it biographies. But it absolutely succeeds at infusing its method of storytelling with the very tropes that Ball championed. And it demonstrates again how Pointless Theatre, through their brand of shameless spectacle, ends up being more substantive than the majority of shows in the area today.

Running Time: 80 minutes, with one ten-minute intermission.

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Hugo Ball: a Dada puppet AdveNTuRe!!/?1!!?? plays through May 14, 2016 at Pointless Theatre Company, performing at the Trinidad Theatre – Logan Fringe Arts Space – 1358 Florida Avenue NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

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