How about taking a little break with me from dear old Broadway?
Let’s head over to the East Village, where New York Theatre Workshop’s worthy initiative, Next Door at NYTW, provides a handsome black box space and other resources to assist small companies and individual artists in showcasing their latest works.
Right now, at the Fourth Street Theatre, the experimental performance troupe known as Little Lord is in residence with Skinnamarink.
You may recall singing a variation of this song when you were a little kid. Jimmy Durante used to croon it. The “no-necked monsters” of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof perform the ditty for Big Daddy. Historically, the song originally popped up in The Echo, a musical comedy that marked the Broadway debut of the legendary Dolly Sisters way back in 1910.
This Skinnamarink, however, has nothing at all to do with the Dolly Sisters, Jimmy Durante, or Broadway. It does have everything to do with little kids.
A collaborative work created by the Little Lord ensemble with Michael Levinton, the show’s director (and the company’s artistic director), Skinnamarink is an absurdist study in indoctrination.
The piece is inventively drawn from McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers: The elementary school primers used throughout the United States during much of the 19th and early 20th centuries. These texts used repetition, sounding-out, and enunciation drills, followed by questions regarding each of these sequences, to teach reading skills.
As Skinnamarink proceeds over the next 75 minutes, it eventually suggests that participating in such repetitive exercises might lead people to regimentation, brainwashing, and cultish behavior.
The audience is arranged along opposite sides of the open playing space. A row of wooden kindergarten-sized chairs lines one wall, and a table stacked with books and academic articles is placed against the other, above which dangles several shiny red apples. Soon, seven actors trot out, playing young boys and girls. They wear old-fashioned school uniforms in mint and white colors and they all sport curly blond hair.
A voice emanating from a loudspeaker—a voice of authority—guides these children through various and increasingly weird exercises, which range from parroting simplistic Dick-and-Jane sort of dialogues to a show-and-tell session when the head of a doll gets ripped off. Songs are sung, including the title number. Curious types of calisthenics are strictly executed. The children mostly obey and only rarely resist the instructions they hear. None of them appears in the least bit happy.
The children smear their faces with peanut butter during a snack time. They check their heads for lice. One boy pees his pants. The tinkling music from a distant Mister Softee truck evokes terror. The rote lessons continue. Playground and assembly sequences grow chaotic. School bells insistently ring.
Initially childish and playful, the amusing piece gradually turns sinister. Towards the conclusion, as the actors sprawl motionless on their backs, heads hidden in brown paper bags, the sight may recall to some viewers images of the Jonestown mass murder-suicide of 1978.
Ironically, this troubling vision does not dissuade the entire audience from obeying that same voice of authority when it later insists that everyone should stand up and participate with the company in gesticulating their way through the silly line-dance motions of a “Peanut Butter” song. Even as you are doing it, you might wonder what the hell is motivating you to go along with the group.
Had cups of Kool-Aid been passed around at that point, would everyone drink it?
The absence of a storyline and the abstract doings of this smart and slyly disturbing work are likely to disconcert viewers who prefer their theater conventional. Theatergoers willing to take an experimental journey will be impressed by the acute performances by the members of the Little Lord ensemble even as they later ponder the unsettling significance of Skinnamarink.