I Understand Everything Better: Theater review by Helen Shaw
David Neumann's beautiful dance-theater work I Understand Everything Better says some very loud things, very calmly. It begins with four performers emerging in silence, wearing loose black clothing that might be medical scrubs, or might be the dark pajamas worn by kuroko—the “invisible” stagehands in Kabuki. The stage is cluttered with plastic sheeting and junk; the quartet's mood is of delicate amusement. They look at us. One of Neumann's gentle, weight-shifting dances ensues. The show will later contain such high-spirited nuttiness as a weatherman going gaga for “thundersnow” and several badass rock-music interludes, but it constantly returns to this near-silent core of tightly bundled dancing: small gestures, moving in phase.
Made in response to his parents' deaths—one happened on either side of Hurricane Sandy—I Understand Everything Better takes choreographer Neumann's already-wonderful touch for movement and the wry phrase and cuts it into diamonds. Conceived by Neumann and written in collaboration with Sibyl Kempson, the play's allusions to Japanese performance emphasize how precision can be more emotionally terrible than obvious effort. The show invites quiet and attention by being rich in those same things, and in that state of suspension, we notice that Neumann has just entered a triumphant next phase of his work. He has long been one of the most elegantly hilarious dancers in town—Gene Kelly's gliding strength under a comedian's sly face—but here he makes something for his company, Advanced Beginner Group, that feels genuinely important, both to the form and to minds of those who see it.
One of the performers goes to sit behind a table piled high with bric-a-brac including a soundboard, a fish tank and a coffee urn. “Hi. My name is Tei,” sound designer Tei Blow tells us. “I'm not hiding behind anything; this is my stuff.” All through Kempson's script we hear such frank, casual things that seem to be direct admissions or quotations from life; in one paralyzing moment we even hear someone address Neumann by his father's name, and there are some in the audience who bend over, weeping. (Neumann's parents were fixtures of the New York theater, and his father, Frederick Neumann, cofounded Mabou Mines.)
After that initial dance, Neumann adds a skirt, a bathrobe and a dangly headdress to become a rummage-sale Kabuki hero—the “man of distinction” going on a journey—who is simultaneously an 80-year-old weather enthusiast in the care of two hospice nurses Jen and Johnny (Karen Kandel and sweet-faced John Gasper). He gets up to all sorts of high jinks, but they stay with him, letting him rest when his enthusiasm for weather tires him out. Mimi Lien's set similarly resolves its trash into faux-Japanese treasure, so a floating bundle of inflated trash bags becomes a gossamer cloud and the drifts of plastic become mountains. In Christine Shallenberg's clever video design, live projections of tiny containers (a coffeepot, a bird feeder) transform into landscapes when they appear on Lien's plywood “sky.”
Our three guide-caretakers—Johnny, Jen (Jennifer Kidwell takes over from Kandel for the rest of the run), and Tei murmur information, like the signs of end of life (“Often at twilight, confusion sets in”) or a catalog of fan movements used in Japanese dance. The worlds interpenetrate, and Neumann's rather delighted, naughty old man begins to slow down, getting more tired as his fake-Kabuki scenes repeat. You watch I Understand Everything Better for its many pleasures—Neumann gets as much comic business out of a stretchy mike cord as Buster Keaton would have—but the piece also works as a ritual, a funeral rite in which a son bids farewell. This quality may be why it is so difficult to accept that the piece is ending, when it slides away from us, a complete and beautifully integrated object. I Understand generates vicarious feelings of loss to the extent that, at the end, we find ourselves applauding but bewildered. “Surely,” we find ourselves thinking, almost in anger, “we should have been give more time?”—Helen Shaw
Abrons Arts Center (Off-Off Broadway). By David Neumann and Sibyl Kempson. Choreographed and directed by Neumann. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 20mins. No intermission.