‘Jollification/Mortification’: magical connections at La Mama

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Is it possible to love something you don’t really understand?

I suppose we do that every day with our friends and family, but when it comes to plays and movies and books, people tend to get angry if they can’t connect all the dots.

At the mysterious, dreamlike plays of the New York director/writer Ildiko Nemeth I love letting go of the notion that she is doing something that can be easily explained or described in print.

Nemeth creates experiences that mix theater, dance, cabaret, and performance art. She has an absurdist’s view of life and the world that produces surprising juxtapositions of beauty and ugliness, and comedy and horror. The notion of “story” is almost completely absent but she presents gripping scenes and striking tableaux that stay with you for days.

The current Nemeth presentation, “Jollification/Mortification,” has been designed to celebrate the first decade of her New Stage Theatre Company with a collection of scenes from earlier work by writers ranging from Fernando Arrabal to Colm O’Shea.

Like a deft painter or scupltor, Nemeth has the ability to shape her work to the restrictions of whatever materials she has access to.

The most recent New Stage Theatre Company production – “Garden of Delights” — was put together in the largest space at the Theater for the New City and it had a spectacular, “wide-screen” cinematic visual scope as a result.

“Jollification/Mortification” is being presented on the very snug stage of The Club at La Mama — on East 4th St. in Lower Manhattan — but Nemeth has tailored her vision to the space with such care and cleverness that she is still able to produce the stunning stage pictures that are her trademark.

Although it is made up of pieces of earlier work, “Jollification/Mortification” works as a new and separate show because of the unusual venue and the director’s seamless connecting moments.

The show opens with a rather daffy take on the origin of our species — moving from plankton in the sea to a more aggressive and opportunistic form of life within a few minutes. Nemeth has a marvelous flair for making costumes as important as the other scenic elements and her work her with designer Brandon Olson is stunning.

I have no idea where the Hungarian artist’s ideas come from, but there were moments in “Jollification/Mortification” when I felt like I was back at that chic but scary cocktail party in “Last Year at Marienbad” where the women’s clothing and hats morph into bird-like plummage.

Nemeth’s musical choices are as eclectic as her visual combinations, with pieces by Erik Satie and other composers melding into her own original work.

The director is blessed in having frequent actor collaborators such as Sarah Lemp and Dana Boll in her new show. Getting on Nemeth’s wavelength must be a challenge for artists like Lemp who have excelled in ultra-realistic plays elsewhere, but the director also gives her performers chances to enthrall an audience with a completely original approach to performance.

If you go to La Mama willing to face more questions than answers — and to let Ildiko Nemeth take over your imagination — you should have a terrific time at “Jollification/Mortification.”

(Photos by Lee Wexler, Images for Innovation. The show is being presented through April 21. For more information, visit www.lamama.org)

Joe Meyers

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