‘New Islands Archipelago’: strange & funny downtown ‘cruise’

The latest theater piece by The Talking Band — “New Islands Archipelago” by Paul Zimet — is a very engaging mix of zany comedy about cruise ship travel and more serious performance art-style musings on disconnected families and dream logic.

What starts as a fairly broad piece about the search for personal connections on board a cruise ship quickly morphs into something much harder to pin down — a mix of dreams and fantasies bolstered by the wonderful video work of Simon Tarr and the atmospheric sets and lighting by Nic Ularu and Nan Zhang.

As the characters interact — and start to change — the piece becomes more abstract and dream-like. Elements of music and dance are added to the loose plot.

The character of the captain (terrific work by Steven Rattazzi, below), who starts out as a slightly pompous comic figure, goes through the biggest changes in the ensemble. At a party, the captain does a bizarre cross gender stiptease which ends with the revelation that he is half man/half winged sea creature.

The title “New Islands Archipelago” refers to a pyramid scheme that is being peddled on the ship by a suave elderly man named Herman (James Himelsbach). He claims to have real estate tracts on an unspoiled tropical island, which he uses to entice two elderly women on the cruise (Tina Shepard and Ellen Maddow, below, who are both founding members of The Talking Band).

Three charismatic young strangers — crew member Todd D’Amour and passengers Kristine Haruna Lee and Bianca Leigh (above, with D’Amour) — start to wonder if they might be related (in spite of a sexual attraction to each other).

The “show” actually starts in the lobby of the 3LD Art & Technology Center a half-hour before “New Islands Archipelago” is presented in the auditorium. Theatergoers are offered free cruise pictures as they come in (they are emailed to you after the show) and there are a variety of shipboard games to be played, from shuffleboard to miniature golf.

Rattazzi as the captain enters the lobby to welcome the audience to the “cruise” and then you are shown to your seats.

The Talking Band has been doing its avant garde thing in New York City since 1974 — a miracle in the non-commercial theatre — with its early members picking up where Joseph Chaikin’s legendary experimental troupe — the Open Theater — left off.

There is nothing straightforward about “New Islands Archipelago” — and getting to the theater south of the World Trade Center site is an adventure in itself — but even in its most mysterious moments, the show is captivating, thanks to its innovative production elements and an excellent cast.

(For more information, on “New Islands Archipelago,” which is set to run through June 6, go to www.talkingband.org.)

Joe Meyers