The Golden Toad: Theater review by Helen Shaw
New York may be eating itself, the Village and its history, but goddamn it, it's not gone yet. And some of the things that make the city wonderful remain. La MaMa still has a weird copse of DIY theater columns standing in the stairwell. East 4th Street still boasts the occasional handprinted poster. And right now, the Ellen Stewart Theater is playing host to the Talking Band's The Golden Toad, a wistful shaggy-dog tale about people dealing with rising tides: dementia, gentrification and, of course, sea levels.
When Joseph Chaikin's legendary Open Theater dissolved, some of its particles reassembled to become the Talking Band, and now that experimental company is turning 40. Chaikin feared institutionalization, with all the calcification and self-deceit that goes along with it, so the Band's longevity may not be the right thing to celebrate. Instead, its birthday cake should have a candle for each time it resisted polish and commerciality—each time, in fact, that the work has seemed defiantly absurd. In the Band's last few shows, delight in sloppiness has been almost too complete, and they have occasionally made tough objects to love. But this soap-operatic epic-with-music is the Band at its best: both long-considered and ragged, Brechtian and full of invitation.
The Golden Toad is actually four microplays and an epilogue, performed in locations around La MaMa. We begin in Brooklyn where Charles (Mikeah Ernest Jennings), Jack (James Tigger! Ferguson) and their daughter, Ava (Helen Gutowski), live upstairs from a paranoid Valerie (Maddow). Valerie's friends Amethyst (the great Tina Shepard) and Kevin (Nicolas Noreña) visit often and cast inquiring glances at the family upstairs, but despite deep mistrust, these six will find themselves intertwined over the next decade—falling in love, falling for scams, going on bus tours of the Meadowlands and singing their truth at the titular karaoke club.
Writers Ellen Maddow and Paul Zimet's script boasts all the narrative discipline of latter-season Days of Our Lives; if they need a twist, they ladle in surprise triplets. Puppets made of twisted brown paper make up part of the gang, and songs by Maddow and Elizabeth Swados either comment on the action or tell us stories about the success of the Singer sewing machine. It's a gallimaufry, and as with any stew, it was a near thing getting the seasoning right.
You may not be enraptured by every moment of this three-hour-plus event; I spent some time in the often charming Meadowlands sequence staring out the “bus window” at “New Jersey.” In some ways, it feels like community theater, with the vanishing Village as the community in question. But the work still has the fire that won the group its stack of Obies.
I found myself particularly grateful for the founders' non-representational acting style. In their company's long life, theater creatures Ellen Maddow and Tina Shepard have stubbornly refused to develop (or create) comfort on stage. Compare their wary animal-presences to consummate performer Mikeah Ernest Jennings, an actor in a more conventional mold, in that his face and voice convey humor, emotion, pathos. And yet Maddow and gravel-voiced Shepard are huge fun to watch. After all these years, it's as though two coyotes have escaped into the theater. Whenever one of them ambles by, the audience reacts as though it scents danger; we don't know if they belong there, but we'd better keep an eye on them just in case.—Helen Shaw
Ellen Stewart Theater at La MaMa E.T.C. (see Off-Off Broadway). By Ellen Maddow and Paul Zimet. Music by Maddow and Elizabeth Swados. Directed by Paul Zimet. With ensemble cast. Running time: 3hrs 20mins. One intermission.