Theater review: In The Loon, Witness Relocation gets crazy with dance-theater

Written by
Helen Shaw
The Loon
Photograph: Maria Baranova

The serial charmer Robert M. Johanson has cornered the market on a very odd style of performance. He infuses nearly everything, no matter how inconsequential, with emphatic, wild-eyed melodrama. The simplest sentence—“I step on the popcorn”— comes out as “I Step! On. The Popcorn.” It's like having the old declamatory days back: imagine Edmund Kean telling you he hangs out in a coffee shop in Gowanus. In Witness Relocation's The Loon, Johanson (in a three-piece suit and tidy nautical beard) performs a monologue that nests inside director Dan Safer's surrounding movement-theater work. Safer and his young dancers fling themselves around energetically in shredded black bodysuits, but they are essentially the painting's ground; Johanson is the figure.

Johanson delivers his loopy text about time, the Voyager probe, his musings on reality and the Audubon guide to North American waterfowl by listening to an in-ear receiver, only occasionally intersecting with Safer's club-inspired choreography. When the parts do touch, it's sweetly productive. For instance, when Sunny Hitt dances a solo, full of telescoping actions and stern pivots, she narrates her movements in real-time: “Here I do 'sexy legs.'” (This commentary echoes the way Johanson improvises remarks on his own performance. “I wonder,” he boomed on the night I saw it, “Is the receiver working?” He checked his mic pack as the company giggled from the wings. “It is not. Let's take that back.”) Johanson has a break as Hitt dances, kicking back with a beer center stage. He really watches Hitt; she murmurs and they laugh. Later they sway together like they're at prom, Johanson bellowing“Whiter Shade of Pale” directly into her forehead. But it's this more casual moment between them that seems like genuine connection.

Throughout “the real” is used to delightful effect. Sections often end with someone looking up at the tech booth and seriously signaling a cue change. After a stream-of-consciousness riff on self-presentation, Johanson promises, “I have to talk about loons, this show is called The Loon. Do you follow? Maybe you stopped following me and you are watching these guys, that’s great! This table dance is pretty awesome, and all of this somehow works together because we put it together. Right, Dan?” At this point Safer, who has been standing behind the seats, yells, “Yup!” and comes barreling out to join the dance. The rhythm of this short show depends on these sudden pinpricks: The text or the movement will start to inflate and then bang! A transition pops it like a balloon.

Witness Relocation's hidden asset is designer Jay Ryan. Against Kaz PS's projections—a lovely black-and-purple swirl of moon animations and whizzing starfields—Ryan picks out individuals in careful golden beams. The show's weakness is its group dances, made collaboratively by the company. They fit awkwardly into the small Experimental Theater at Abrons; the everybody-do-your-own-thing aesthetic gets muddy quickly. In similar fashion, the Eva Jaunzemis costumes (half Chicago, half Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome) are great one by one, yet get goofy when seen en masse. Indeed, there's a part of me that wonders if the piece needs more seriousness, since even among Witness Relocation's many lighthearted creations, The Loon is a meringue. But hell, seriousness isn't all really worth all that much. Look at Johanson! The more he goes for the gravitas, the more he makes the people laugh.

Abrons Arts Center (Off-Off Broadway). By Robert M. Johanson and Dan Safer. Directed by Safer. With ensemble cast.  Running time: 1hr. No intermission. Through Oct 29. Click here for full ticket and venue information.

Follow Helen Shaw on Twitter: @Helen_E_Shaw

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