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Theater review by Helen Shaw
If only the beginning of Ski End could go on forever. If only we could stay in its first mysterious moments, when the possibilities seem infinite, when the show's design and the situational strangeness are working in disorienting tandem. But no—the show must go on. And as we've seen before with the performance collective Piehole, the “going on” part is the problem.
Five adventurers wander into an abandoned building; at first we see them only from the waist down as they amble behind a half-constructed wall. We hear them in voiceover (the superb sound design is by Joseph Wolfslau) and glimpse them via closed-circuit camera (the video design, also quite fine, is by Matt Romein). While their voices sound happy, there's a disturbing No Exit quality that hints they may be in Hell. Even that brimstone neighborhood, of course, has a real estate agent, so the tart Alexandra Panzer—seller's sangfroid firmly in place—occasionally pops in to see if we'd like to buy.
Piehole's squad of theatrical devisors includes director Tara Ahmadinejad, two dramaturgs and a brace of actors. (Note the number of cooks.) If you saw the company’s Old Paper Houses, you'll recognize the way a handsome initial scene gives way to shapeless imitation-of-play. In Houses, the characters exhaustively invented a toy utopia, structure by structure; in Ski End, a group stuck in a long-defunct ski shop dreams up a list of winter activities. These include waiting for a bus, paddling around an Alpine lake (a wet spot on the floor), clumping about in wooden skis and doing pretend paperwork. There are hints that the real topic here is climate change—hints that turn into sledgehammers in the show's final moments. But the bulk of the evening is just watching actors mess around.
Collaborative playmaking comes preloaded with a set of problems. Solve them and you make a masterpiece; ignore them and you're sunk. The one that troubles Ski End is editing. When everyone is contributing, when an egalitarian ethic underlies the artistic process, it's difficult to know what to cut. Ski End feels extremely long at 100 minutes, too indulgent of each performer and too dependent on a few moments of loveliness to make the longer ones sing.
Panzer's gross-gorgeous set seems to consist mainly of trash, but it's trash that can turn into a mountaintop or a post-climate-apocalypse wasteland. She has given the cast a lot of promise and danger to work with—dead birds keep falling from the ceiling—but the group turns towards dullness. Ski End becomes a convincing portrait of people with nothing to do, pursuing the kind of invention that digs holes instead of filling them. It’s as though the performers’ real subjects were themselves and their collaborative process. “Look,” they appear to be saying. “This is what it's like when people come up with a game from scratch.” But it doesn't seem like it would be that fun to play, honestly. And whatever it is, it's not yet a spectator sport.
New Ohio Theater (Off-Off Broadway). Created by Piehole. Directed by Tara Ahmadinejad. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission. Through May 19.