Review: Tina Satter's Family

sistersOne of the things too often abused in experimental theater—particularly the rambunctious type preferred by Tina Satter's Half Straddle company—is a sense of ease. There's a fine line between fetchingly jerry-built (think NTUSA's Don Juan) and irritatingly slapdash (think NTUSA's Chautauqua!). Writer-director Satter, who sat through her show at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater Thursday night in a zingy black dress and gold high-tops, certainly has "ease" to spare. She likes a late-'80s, glam-rock aesthetic, and she tends to execute it with a certain devil-may-care, homemade glee. But in her ridiculous, enchanting musical Family, her creation earns the right to kick back by dedicating itself to a well-defined world in which events that could have seemed self-consciously wacky instead feel inevitable and, yes, at ease.
What is that world? Basically, take the Grey Gardens house, populate it with Bring It On cheerleaders in puffy-sleeved jackets and leggings, and then have Wes Anderson film it. Be sure to toss in details like an offstage "Michael Phelps" doing laps around the island, and an onstage DJ playing the clarinet, and you're halfway to Half Straddle. That this universe swallows us whole after a tight five minutes testifies to Satter's eye for the telling detail—the Ontological stage feels crammed with artsy junk, but we're actually looking at little more than a stuffed weasel and a bad tiger painting.

Living in this nutty, distinctly New England haven are Mum (Rae C. Wright) and daughters Lily (Emily Davis) and Frarajaca (Erin Markey). Theirs is a genteel poverty: They have no money for highlights, but plenty to redo the front steps in granite. Younger sister Frarajaca bubbles with ideas and projects, from a documentary on horsehair to her dance team's brilliant tribute to the cartouche (listen to Chris Giarmo's distractingly hummable song here). But while Frarajaca charges toward fame and fulfillment at the impending Art Fair ("Hello? Have you even read my artist's statement? That's totally what I'm all about"), Lily languishes. Mum wants her to have Rudolf Nureyev's baby, and while all the chatter about frozen sperm feels like a goof, buried beneath it is a vicious swipe at "breeder" morality. Will the child be a substitute for a good art project? Despite a touching—even thrilling—song about motherhood, the signs don't look promising.

The company is full to the brim with killer talent: Coltish Eliza Bent does her arch "I'm not performing" shtick as one of Frarajaca's dance-team buddies, designers Zack Tinkelman and costumer Normandy Sherwood crack spectacular visual jokes, and the two leads—the weirdly matched Markey and Davis—ought to both be stars. Markey in particular delivers her absurdist Valley-girl dialogue ("Our class was adopted by Germany. Look—it's boring, but it's happening") with an almost dangerous edge. She bites through her part with bared teeth and increasingly terrifying hair; she's part mean girl, part bacchante.

In Satter's earlier The Knockout Blow, which I saw in a late-night incarnation at HERE, she paired babes in off-the-shoulder lam with winky, wistful dialogue (Jess Barbagallo played a depressed werewolf) and set it all to Chris Giarmo's synthesizer-mad, '80s-esque avant-ballads. No one seemed bothered that Barbagallo's voice was unaccustomed to hitting high notes. No one seemed fussed at all when the set—a flock of plastic-wrapped icebergs—got smacked with a pink cooler and started to calve unexpectedly. The other two actresses, Bent and Julia Sirna-Frest (usual suspects in Satterland), just giggled and forged onward. A well-put-together production, I almost felt, would have ruined the girls-playing-dress-up vibe.

Here, though, Satter, Giarmo and company have found a way to keep the anarchy without surrendering polish. Not to worry, actors still make little asides about AWOL props, and performances still feel refreshingly loose. It's just that they also braid in firmer textures, like a tart deconstruction of grant-ready artspeak and a brisk portrait of sisterly whining. Satter hasn't made many shows, and this one closes this Saturday, August 22. I accept that you might not manage to get down to the Ontological in time. Just be sure, really sure, that you don't miss the next one.