Hip Shot: Jesus Le MOMO
Fort Fringe- Bedroom
Tuesday, July 24th 9:45 p.m.
Thursday, July 26th 8:15 p.m.
Saturday, July 28th 7 p.m.
They Say: "It's 1970, DC. A priest's 'wife' at odds with her 'husband' the priest and communal housemates hold a prayer meeting, speaking in tongues. Dead, mad poet-playwright Antonin Artaud suddenly materializes, demanding they assist him in his resurrection without God!"
"Our sensibility has reached the point where we surely need theatre that wakes us up heart and nerves." Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and it's Double
In the case of Jesus le MOMO, heeding the advice of an artist trying to entice me with a postcard totally paid off. I went to this show on a whim. Once or twice per Fringe I head to the tent, assignment- and notebook-free, to see whatever suits my fancy. I mention this because had I planned to go I would have boned- up on the manifestos and biography of Antonin Artaud. A prior knowledge of this avant- garde playwright's work isn't strictly necessary in order to enjoy the show, but it will certainly enhance the experience. As will fluency in French. Jesus le MOMO is not the easiest play to understand, but even unprepared I was intrigued and entertained.
In playwright J.R. Foley's story, Artaud's anti- religious philosophy and Christian fervor collide. The title is a reference to Artaud's 1947 essay Artaud le Momo. Momus is the Greek god of satire and mockery, whose relentless criticism got him expelled from Mount Olympus, just as Artaud was expelled from the Surrealist movement. When a prayer circle, led by a minister who has also been rejected by his order, inadvertently conjures up the spirit of Artaud instead of Jesus, chaos, terror, and just a little blood-jetting ensues.
"The actor is a heart athlete."
The preshow performance alone is almost worth the price of a ticket. Liz Salamon, who plays Artaud, leans in the left corner of the stage as the audience enters the theater. The set is simple, a backdrop with a sign reading "There is Room at the Inn." Salamon doesn't do much besides run her fingers along the walls and think, but this physical performance is so sensual and strange that I couldn't take my eyes off it. And I wasn't alone. As the lights went down for the start of the show, the audience, with no clue yet as to the meaning of what we'd seen, gave her a quick round of applause.
The whole cast is impressive. Sean Sidbury, Liz Kinder and Molly MacKenzie all bring a startling energy to the prayer meeting and to speaking in tongues. Rachel Viele as Gretchen and Tyler Budde as Fr. Jim are believable as an estranged couple, balancing the frenetic presence of the mad playwright with moments of levity. The show, however, belongs to Salamon. She is enthralling as the hissing, writhing, demonic Artaud.
"Let us do away with this foolish adherence to texts... theatre's effectiveness and poetry is exhausted least quickly of all, since it permits he action of movement and spoken things, never reproduced twice."
Much of Artaud's dialogue is in French. When speaking English, Salamon adopts an accent so thick that it's difficult to discern what she is saying. As a result, the nuances of some interactions are not always easy to follow. It's to the credit of the cast and director Adi Stein that the plot comes across very clearly. At no point did I want to stop putting in the energy that this show requires.
Disrupting the audience's ability to engage with the play through language is also a part of why Jesus le MOMO succeeds. Artaud believed that language had stagnated society's ability to discern meaning. He believed that in order to compel an audience to question reality, theater should be a disturbing aural and visual experience. He experimented with plays that employed only grunts and screams.
Featuring sound and light design by Elliot Lanes, Jesus le MOMO harnesses this sensibility without alienating the audience. I wouldn't say that the piece is so innovative as to be worthy of the term avant- garde, but it sure is one heck of an homage.
See It If: You like a bit of a challenge, or one kick- ass performance justifies your time and ticket.
Especially See It If: You're a theater geek and having no clue how to apply Artaud's ideas never stopped you from underlining passages in his essays.
Skip It If: The term avant-garde makes you roll your eyes.