GUEST FEATURE: “Demolishing Everything with Amazing Speed” by Dan Hurlin at ADI

From the DC Dance Journalism Project


By Luella Christopher, Ph.D.

At least three sizes of puppets, from toddler height to miniatures, dominate the stage in Dan Hurlin’s recent work, “Demolishing Everything with Amazing Speed” – shown locally for the first time on Dec. 2nd and 3rd at American Dance Institute in Rockville, Maryland.

This is no ordinary construction – certainly not the strung marionettes encountered in many children’s theater venues. Hurlin has crafted visually striking Japanese Bunraku-style dolls, a style and genre that he teaches, along with art and dance, at Sarah Lawrence College. The New Yorker describes his invention as a “cubo-constructivo-Bauhausianism” of puppets with pear-shaped heads and conical legs, outfitted with cigarettes and other accessories. (Joan Acocella, “Forgotten Futurist Puppet Shows,” July 11 and 18, 2016.) These puppets must work to live, drawing their emotions from the spectator, the artist says. That very struggle prompts his use of largely muted though occasionally stark primary colors for the inanimate actors.

Hurlin’s puppets are controlled by visible adult performers clad in white boiler suits who double as technicians and stagehands: Eric F. Avery, C.B. Goodman, Catherine Gowl, Takema Kitamura, Rowan Magee, and Josh Rice. Dan Moses Schreier supplies original music that is smartly rendered by onstage percussionists Laura Hamel and Matt SanGiovanni with a frequent overlay of recorded sound designed by Schreier and Joshua D. Reid. The work is dramatically lit throughout its entirety by Tyler Micoleau.

The plays typically occur simultaneously in different toy theaters – a staging technique calculated to convey an overriding chaos. In the absence of spoken dialogue, Hurlin provides a unifying thread to the work through the character of a narrator (Depero), who intermittently voices stage directions that render his terse manifestos utterly comprehensible to the audience. This role is played forcefully by Jennifer Kidwell, attired in white pants, colorful vest, and bowler hat.

Nor do Hurlin’s creations weave a frothy fairy tale. This is puppet noir – disturbing and violent, as the artist explains in prefacing the performance. Charting the work during the latter part of 2016 through recent rehearsals for its presentation at ADI sadly coincided with mounting incidents of mass violence in the United States, including the Thanksgiving weekend knifings on the campus of Ohio State University. Hurlin meticulously recited the locus of each major incident in his introduction.

In “Demolishing Everything with Amazing Speed,” Hurlin fuses puppetry, music, and technology, using plays known collectively as Dramma Plastico Futurista (Futurist Plastic Theatre) that were written in 1917 at the height of World War I by Italian Futurist Fortunato Depero. They include Sicura (Safe), Omicidi Acrobatici (Acrobatic Suicides and Homicides) Automatico (Automatic Thief), and Avventura Elettrica (Electric Adventure). According to The New York Times: “For the Futurists, who glorified technological speed and force over all humanist virtues, war was good, notoriously described by one of the movement’s proponents as the ‘world’s hygiene.'” The tenor of the piece is “triumphantly macabre, unfolding as a bright catalog of carnage and vivisection, in which classic love and crime stories become automated Armageddons.” (Ben Brantley, “Review: A Harrowing Puppet Show ‘Demolishing Everything with Amazing Speed,’ ” July 10, 2016)

“Demolishing” was initially developed in Italy after Hurlin became one of four individuals to receive the 2013-14 Jesse Howard Jr. Rome Prize for visual art. His first puppet is a woman sporting a single eye and peacock feather headdress. She climbs up a tier of red stairs (deftly assembled by the performers), retreats, crosses her legs, and drinks from a bottle while covorting with a second puppet. This gentleman is a somewhat daunting figure (in grey military dress uniform with orange-red sash and medal) who disassembles and reassembles an oversize wine cup, encouraging the lady puppet to become “red, luminous, drunk.” Upstage projections announce a body count of one.

A new puppet garbed in a dusty lavender suit with clashing fabric swatches (striped pants and pointed lapels with geometric shapes) pulls out his eyes, then the stiff black hairs from his head – one-by-one – while smoking a cigar.  Next up is a couple (in a spectrum of green shades from moss to lime) who peck at each other until the female breaks a chair over the man’s head. They proceed to yank each other’s arms out of their sockets. The pair is followed by a puppet (in grey with red sash and a walking stick), possibly a holdover from the wrath of the lady in red with the peacock feather. He shakes to the sound of a fire station alarm and is joined by four smaller puppets.

Vibrant video projections on five floor-to-ceiling panels depict a boatman and a cyclist, upstage panels that are fronted by skulls and crossbones on three white slabs. Baby puppets surround the military man, all of whom are brutally felled. Body count rises to seven. The puppeteers cart red geometric shapes on poles around center-stage, the meaning of which is not only unclear but stridently hallucinogenic. Body count rises to forty-nine.

Video projections now reveal masked figures approving of the destruction that is taking place. Military man assumes the role of sniper, perches himself atop the panels, and proceeds to gun down more puppets. The narrator describes these “sudden, rapid dramas and tragedies” as “peace, smiles, and sunshine.” Action then shifts to a restaurant with miniature puppets appearing in a virtual dollhouse; projections of the puppets occur ominously in real time.

A toy car or jeep emerges on stage right and is also projected atop bleak views of a ruined village landscape. In the toy theatre, it crosses in front of businesses such as a bakery and clothing store and over which red cutouts of the fingers of individual hands descend in a backdrop of blackened windows. The car produces an automated extension at its forward end, onto which a magnet is lodged. (This is a new and sinister type of thief.) Miniature puppets with guns are artificially multiplied by the video projections; the table at stage left expands horizontally. Projections of pastries dance across the floor as the narrator proclaims that the “elevator continues to rise to the dwelling of the thief.” Hurlin’s imagery is lush and oddly inviting.

In a vignette labeled “So I Think, So I Paint,” a new puppet (in red and magenta smoking jacket) works at an easel. Still another, garbed in blue, labors as the chef in a restaurant kitchen to strains of Italian opera. At a new table, another new puppet in green taps out what sounds like Morse code. He could be the stationmaster in charge of the Futuristic trains that dominate the upstage projections. A new female puppet in blue tries to engage the stationmaster. She meets the puppet in red/magenta smoking jacket who now displays an obsession with bowing. The lady orders multiple entrees and devours all of them “with amazing speed,” according to the narrator.

Alas, the stationmaster is hit by the train in the projections as it navigates “sheer cliffs and dangerous curves.” Only now does does the audience grasp that an apparent love triangle went awry. The fallen stationmaster is joined by the couple; they are moved to three beds that morph into coffins (suddenly, the three puppets seem vastly bigger). The train continues to careen on its track while the body count rises to hundreds of thousands, a million-plus, and finally a count of 2,271,796. Is this the tally recorded in 1917 for military casualties?

Projected newsreel photos race scroll rapidly on the back panels, including what looks like a sardonic split-second blip of president-elect Donald Trump. Final projections are of a desolate landscape, although flowers that also look like clusters of cauliflowers (mushroom clouds, perhaps) do appear. Interpreting this apparent apocalypse remains the prerogative of the viewer. From any vantage point, the message – and perhaps the warning – becomes all the more potent and remarkable given the reality that Depero devised it an entire century ago. Hurlin has illustrated his work with great skill, insight, and aplomb.

Copyright © 2016 by Luella Christopher