by Pamela Lewis
published November 19, 2008
now playing Off Broadway at HERE Arts Center
through November 22
Bette Davis famously remarked that old age was not for sissies. Neither is youth, at
least not as it's presented in 837 Venice Boulevard, which is about to finish its brief run at HERE Arts Center on
November 22. Written and choreographed by Faye Driscoll in collaboration with the play's three
performers (Michael Helland, Celia Rowlson-Hall and Nikki Zialcita), the work is featured as part of HERE's 2008-09 mainstage season of new
multi-disciplinary productions that includes theater, dance, puppetry, and multimedia works.
Regardless of what the quality of one's youth might have been,
looking back on it is a courageous act. Remembrance of both its wondrous and woeful episodes can
batter the soul, with regret being the usual aftertaste.
The exhaustingly motoric dancers of 837 Venice Boulevard (the title comes from Ms.
Driscoll's childhood home address in Los Angeles) do not so much take us through Ms. Driscoll's early youth as they do dance, push, and
hurl us through it, revealing all of its knockabout savagery, its seal-our-friendship-with-spit bonding, its fears, and its
fantasies. From the opening moments of this dance theater piece, when we first meet Celia
performing a spinning hand dance while singing lyrics based on Will Oldham's “I am a Cinematographer,” we know we are entering fraught
Once Michael and Nikki join in, movement is incessant, with the three performers at turns manipulating and being manipulated like
puppets and puppeteers, at other times executing endless in-and-out steps, vaguely evoking one of Balanchine's plotless
ballets. Each performer gets his or her chance to regale us, the most impressive offering
being from Ms. Zialcita, a diminutive powerhouse who at once invites us into her fantasy world where she exercises complete control and
gets the praise perhaps denied her in real life.
But, as Ms. Driscoll explained (in an interview included in the program notes), her play is more than an examination of either her
particular childhood or of childhood generally, but “more the emotional landscape: the feeling of loneliness, of being loved, and the
silliness of fantasy.” Through Celia and her friends, as they roll on the floor and engage in
the kind of physical manipulation at which children can excel, Ms. Driscoll examines the complicated constructs of identity and the various
ways in which we all blame each other, and how exhausting it is to have to “be somebody” all the time, as is loudly expressed in the play's
Fair enough. These are ancient and important themes, always worthy of
examination. The question is how they are examined. Ms. Driscoll gives her three interpreters lots to do; their athleticism is breathtaking (literally and
figuratively), giving the play a raw and feverish quality. The coltish Ms. Rowlson-Hall brings
a vulnerability to her part, giving herself completely to the physical and emotional demands of her part, and Mr. Helland is graceful but
can tap into a more maniacal power when it's needed. For
this reviewer, however, the hysterical and almost unrelenting wildness of the action seriously overwhelmed and undermined the very themes
in question. Although Ms. Driscoll's interest is in narrative, as she also discussed in her
interview, she prefers that the narrative contain ambiguity so that the viewer can project his
or her own experience. Narrative in 837 is not only
missing in action, but missing because of action, buried, as it were, by so much physicality. Ms. Driscoll recommends that we be open to this type of work, but when solid storytelling is sacrificed,
that’s asking a lot.
pamelalewis @ stageandcinema.com