The Brits Off Broadway festival, at the 59E59 complex, is dedicated to importing innovative and provocative fare. “The Race” arrives emblazoned with U.K. critical quotes describing it as “insane,” “tantalizingly raw” and “deliciously warped.” Based on what we see here, let’s call it visually arresting and mighty strange.
Unconventional piece comes from Gecko, a 6-year-old group that specializes in physical theater. And physical it is; the actors don’t walk when they can bounce. If somebody sits, a chair is likely to roll on at the last moment for them to land in; if somebody is sitting, the chair is likely to disappear, causing them to fall backward, somersault and come up transitioned into the next scene.
A thirtyish fellow is apprehensive about approaching fatherhood. That’s it, folks: “The Race” seeks to enlighten us through movement rather than plot. We get the point, eventually, and they keep our interest throughout the hour we are sitting there. (If 60 minutes sounds short, it’s more than enough.) The cast works hard in a performance that falls somewhere between mime, dance and athletics.
The five-person Gecko was founded by artistic directors Amit Lahav and Al Nedjari (who co-directed “The Race”) and devised by the performers. Lahav does well in the central role, reminding one of the young Keir Dullea. Nedjari plays the hero’s Jewish father, among other roles, and Natalie Ayton (as the mother-to-be) is especially likable.
James Flynn and Katharine Markee are also perfect components of this machine-like cast; all of them get a good physical workout without making the thing look like aerobics.
Developed at London’s Battersea Arts Center and National Theater Studio, “The Race” toured the U.K. in 2005. This is Gecko’s second piece after “Taylor’s Dummies,” which has toured international fringe festivals.
Stagecraft is refreshingly low-tech. Major scenic device is an upstage wall composed of black flats and drapes, which can be manipulated into rectangular windows to frame the action.
Show opens with Lahav on a mini-treadmill, comically pulled around the stage on a visible cable. In one scene, his very Jewish family pulls him from the womb — a wonderfully devised bit of business — and then attach poles to his limbs and manipulate him like a marionette.
He then transforms into a man with gorilla-like grunts. Given the ape sounds, primate posturing and Disney-green lighting, visual reminds us of a spit-and-nail-polish version of Broadway’s latest $15 million-plus musical.
This feeling is compounded moments later by the appearance of an infant doll that looks remarkably like the one being used crosstown. Mere coincidence, of course, even when Lahav is later hoisted on a bungee, swinging out over the heads of the paying customers.
Rumination of this sort is allowable, as you don’t spend much time concentrating on dialogue. “Yeah,” “oh, my God,” “you know,” “hey”: that’s pretty much it. At one point, in an outburst that is relatively Stoppardian, someone says, “So how you going to cope?”
The motion is the thing here. Actors run, jump, jog, dance and bounce; the transitions from one movement to another are often ingenious, as is a bit of business in which Lahav picks up a phone and the receiver becomes a baby (complete with umbilical clipping). There is also a scene in which the leading man gives birth to triplets, which turn into sextuplets.
Hard work, but it’s all in a day’s race.