American Theater Review
Ya Either Got It, or Ya Ain't
Abundance offers snapshot of money's impact ATW Review 1/19/2004
Dance Theater Workshop
The company of Abundance.
If discussions of money and personal finance make you uncomfortable, the Working Theatre's Abundance is not for you. Before audience members enter the theater at DTW on 19th Street, volunteers ask them to fill out surveys about, among other things, how much they earned last year, the amount of debt they carry. In addition, the form asks one to decide on the spot how much one spends each year on necessary items and how much one spends on unnecessary things. On the night I attended, I overheard one woman say, "Well, that certainly made me think."
Indeed, not only will the form make one think, but also the performance of Abundance as well, which examines the effect of money on our lives and on society. The piece has been developed by Marty Pottenger and is based on interviews that the company conducted with a wide variety of New Yorkers: construction workers, government officials, scientists, engineers, bankers, etc. The result is a two-hour piece that weaves together three disparate strands to give a thoughtful, sometimes startling look at how money shapes our personal lives.
The driest of the work's strands is its statistical component. Two of the performers from the five-person company play sanitation workers who appear periodically and recite factoids about personal wealth, debt levels and spending habits in this country. Some of the facts startle, particularly when they give the financial snapshot of the evening's audience, based on the surveys. And while Thom Rivera and Herb Downer make for engaging comic everymen in these two roles, the pedantic nature of these sections makes one resent their intrusion into the two more emotionally compelling narratives in Abundance.
In one of these strands, an elderly millionaire's Abundance is literally displayed through the projections of his art collection (as the slides for these portions of Pottenger's work rotate, one feels as if one is seeing a retrospective of American art). This is also, perhaps, the most theatrically traditional of the work's three narratives as the audience witnesses the constantly evolving power structure between the MS-stricken millionaire and his black valet.
Pottenger reaches the height of sardonic humor as the imperious wheelchair man commands the servant to "dust the vultures", which one sees in silhouette on a chandelier hanging above Mimi Lien's appropriately stark scenic design. Before the end of the play, one has seen the millionaire reduced to a child only to return as an even more sinister figure, while the valet has morphed in and out of the role of master and servant. Here, Downer portrays the servant with quiet authority and dignity while Joe Gioco provides a sinister and pitiable portrait of the aging tycoon.
Interestingly the most compelling of the three strands is the one which, one assumes, comes most directly from the company's interview process. Here, the five members of the ensemble play a variety of roles from a wealthy debt-ridden mom contemplating suicide (a wonderfully scattered and sympathetic portrayal from Cary Baker) to an Indian assistant professor at NYU (Rivera, demonstrating a grand versatility) to a woman who eschews a for-profit professional life in favor of a life as a professional volunteer (a captivating Nikki E. Walker).
Downer and Gioco are also on hand in these sections, as a series of group meetings (debtors' anonymous?) unfold in which the characters share their frustrations, fears and aspirations about money. Through the interludes with the group, where the company plays approximately a dozen roles collectively, one becomes emotionally attached and engaged by their radically different plights. When they each come to group to rid themselves of one possession, it's startling to discover that one is rooting for them.
Steven Bailey and Pottenger have staged the work simply and presentationally. There are moments in which the five members act as a kind of universal chorus on personal finance traversing the stage in wide arcs as they deliver snippets of answers from the developmental interviews. All of Bailey and Pottenger's stage pictures are lit handsomely by Susan Hamburger's sensitive lighting design and underscored sensitively and shrewdly by Terry Dame's original score.
Though not without its slower stretches, Abundance captivates throughout and even after its run its two-hour course. I admit that, being so taken with the piece, I left my press kit in the theater as I walked out on to the street contemplating the effect of money and possessions on all aspects of my life.
Abundance continues through January 24 at Dance Theatre Workshop (219 West 19th Street). Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 7PM and Saturday at 2 PM. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased by calling 212-924-0077. Further information is available online at: www.abundanceproject.net.
-- Andy Propst