The curtain rises in the Abrons Arts Center on a whimsical set representing a farmhouse, a wooden cutout cow held by a man, and David Greenspan with exaggerated makeup and a caricatured stance. The next 90 minutes certainly explores Target Margin Theater's stated foundational principle: "that works of art return us to real truths more powerfully by their divergence from a strict illustration of reality." Their current production, The (*) Inn (*empty, vacant, abandoned; usually translated as "Haunted") by Peretz Hirschbein makes a strong choice to commit to Expressionism. While the design succeeds in bringing this very particular theatrical style to life, the acting does not entirely follow suit, leaving the production's pacing to suffer the consequences.
This production, directed by David Herkovits, continues Target Margin Theater's two year exploration of Yiddish theater and culture. The cast of talented and ethnically diverse actors brings a great deal to this cautionary tale, which was staged with a large number of antirealistic devices. Some of Carolyn Mraz's sets appeared as though they would be right at home in the famous German expressionist movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, as did some of the makeup. In addition, the use of what I believe was both Yiddish and German, the substitution of cardboard cutouts for people and animals, the showcasing of stagehands, and the use of voiceovers and audio effects made this production incredibly distancing.
Of course, one cannot use that word in the theatre and not think of Brecht's famous "Verfremdungseffekt" and his desire to keep his audience from being emotionally involved with the characters (this is often mistranslated as the "alienation" effect). I include this to say that I think that The (*) Inn does some very nice work in achieving this distance, which is something I have never fully experienced in the theatre. Just when I thought I was going to start identifying with a character, he or she would stop speaking and have a voiceover say their thoughts, or perhaps be interrupted by men with bejeweled beards bearing gifts. The form of the show keeps the actors and audience on their toes.
Unfortunately, the pacing is detrimental. Momentum and connection are too different things, and it seems to me that director Herkovits -- who also served as the Sound Designer and is also Target Margin Theater's Artistic Director -- has slightly misjudged their relationship. The show lacks both when it should only the latter. The continual slow progress, which is only occasionally interrupted by bursts of energy, is often simply boring. The pace in fact kept me from being able to go through the full experience of the plays many redirections, and by the time it finally began to pick up it was over.
Despite this problem, I am so proud of this company for taking the risks that they have with this piece. You can count on Target Margin to show you something that exists, well, in the margins of mainstream theatre. They are a creative company who first captured my imagination with their excellent production of The Tempest a few years ago. Yet this is certainly the furthest from realism that I have seen them venture thus far, and I think that is admirable. However, I also think that you can see veteran actors like David Greenspan, Ugu Chukwu, and Susan Hyon all existing in slightly different worlds (though I enjoy all of them individually, and indeed the rest of the company too).
But if you are craving something different, then there is certainly room at the Inn. The (*) Inn runs through March 30 at the Abrons Arts Center.