David Neumann’s I Understand Everything Better took two 2016 Bessie Awards (for New York dance and performance): one for Outstanding Production and one for Sound/Music, awarded to Tei Blow, who performs as DJ and dancer in the show. It opened this week at Hepburn Teaching Theater Auditorium at Bryn Mawr College.
Advanced Beginner Group, founded by Neumann in 2001, was more advanced than beginner. After all, MacArthur fellow and Obie award-winning designer Mimi Lien created its flotsam-filled magpie set, with square inflatables floating above like gargantuan IV bags and a huge beach of crushed-plastic sheeting. Besides Neumann, it had seasoned performers like Jennifer Kidwell (also a member of Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theatre Company and Lightning Rod Special), John Gasper, and Blow.
Which way the wind blows
Neumann built the work around the abrupt death of his mother, actor Honora Ferguson, the summer before Hurricane Sandy, and the final stages of his father Fred’s death just after. A hurricane motif roared through the work. David wore long johns, concealed variously by a ragged jacket, uwagi (outer kimono), hakama (pleated pants), and headdress, all designed by Neumann’s wife, actor Erica Sweany. He acted as a TV meteorologist leaning into the gale wind made by a tall fan, as Gasper held up a green screen behind him. Meanwhile, a video projected further back showed him against hurricane-lashed palm trees. He mirrored the electric fans with a handheld fan when sliding into Japanese Noh performance.
Fred was a canny actor and, full disclosure, I knew him quite well when Mabou Mines, the company he co-founded with Lee Breuer, JoAnne Akalaitis, Philip Glass, Ruth Maleczech, and David Warrilow, was in residency at Arizona State University in the 1990s. With actors like Fred Neumann and Maleczech, you never knew who you'd be with on any given night. They lived drama and playacting. Once, while clearing the patio table at our home, Fred snatched off the striped tablecloth, wrapped it around his shoulders, and snapped a yellow bowl onto his head like a helmet (although I think it still had bits of pesto in it.) In that getup, he gave us a short soliloquy -- on what, sadly, I cannot remember.
Like father, like son
So I shivered when David Neumann, wearing the headdress, yanked a swatch of plastic and tied it toga-like across his chest, stomping around with its lengthy train trailing, proclaiming what seemed to be bastardized lines from King Lear. Growing up in that theatrical atmosphere, I imagine, forged David Neumann’s vividly messy imagery, his ensemble working method, and his ability to muster the most mundane junk into costumes and props. His exits were followed by costume changes and re-entrances announced by the heralding cry, “There is someone at the gates.” Each time, Neumann replied, “It is me, a man of distinction.”
Small cameras, barely secreted, threw imagery onto the screen, while cheap plywood added texture and grain to the videos. The performers cleverly handled the microphones as if they were live animals able to pull away from them when snatched.
Neumann styled the choreography somewhere between tai chi, Broadway, and Noh, mostly in sedately formalized quartets, though there were rowdier moments with deadpan high-kneed skipping, and to Blow’s sound effects while Neumann plodded through mucky floodwaters.
The younger Neumann epitomized the inevitable loss of dignity and the hurricanes of memory of the aging and dying with an irony and wit that would have made his father proud.