The Three Cornered Hat is hilarious, uncanny, and conceptually stimulating

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Choreographed by Jennifer Mascall and the dancers. A MascallDance production, in association with Dancing on the Edge. At Chapel Arts on Thursday, July 3. Continues Friday, July 4, and from Tuesday to next Friday, July 8 to 11

In our hectic lives it’s not always possible to read things all the way through, so for the busy and stressed here’s the capsule review of The Three Cornered Hat, MascallDance’s latest venture into the dreamworld.

Just go. And bring water.

Beyond that, I’m almost hesitant to say more, for fear of spoiling the surprise. But surprises come thick and fast in this production, so I’ll take that risk.

To begin with, let’s note that MascallDance functions more like a research lab than a factory. Its emphasis is on process, not product, and choreographer Jennifer Mascall is happy to let her creations simmer, sometimes for an inordinately long time.

After The Three Cornered Hat’s premiere, she told the Straight that the work is midway through its life; it debuted—under a different title and as a work in progress—at the 2013 Dancing on the Edge festival, and another iteration is due in a year or so.

Little remains of that initial production, beyond cast members Amber Funk Barton and Billy Marchenski, Mascall’s crack technical crew, and performance poet Barbara Adler’s story about 15-year-old Michael, caught between his love for his mother and his need for independence.

Then, the story was the focus, with Marchenski and Barton acting out the two roles, albeit in suggestively abstract form. Now, it’s almost an epilogue, the cast has grown to include five dancers, and the abstraction has been intensified.

An audience member is invited onto the floor, and then, over the 75-minute work’s final fifth, the dancers stage an occultish ritual. Shrinking the performing area by gradually outlining it in a mandalalike grid of red tape, they circle and press in on the volunteer—a sacrifice? a prisoner?—while repeating the same choreographic sequence five or six times. The effect is polyvalent, and brilliant. Viewers get to examine Mascall’s crouched, eccentric movement from a cubistic plethora of angles, while the person plucked from the crowd becomes the vessel for teenage Michael’s sense of worry and social isolation.

Did I mention that the audience member had to stand on a red spiral-bound notebook? “You’ll be safe as long as you stay on the book,” she was told, in an aside that drew a laugh from theatre-savvy viewers.

Dozens of similar journals were The Three Cornered Hat’s principal props, serving as hats, binoculars, fishing lures, play forts, and playthings. At one point, dancers stacked a barricade of them across the rear of the stage, invoking another masterpiece of social isolation, Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Draped along Barton’s outstretched arms, they became ceremonial regalia.

The suggestion, I suppose, is that the artist’s notebook serves as an intermediary state between the sparking mind and the tangible world.

The Three Cornered Hat is hilarious, uncanny, and conceptually stimulating, but it’s also a sensory delight. Russell Brand look-alike Chris Wright cuts a simmering presence, with occasional flashes of vulnerability. Darcy McMurray is so charged she seems always on the verge of an explosion. Marchenski and Lara Barclay’s contact-improv-informed pas de deux is both absurd and erotic. Barton takes a comic solo that convulsed the audience. Stefan Smulovitz contributes live viola and an otherworldly electroacoustic score. Designer Bill Pechet and lighting director John Macfarlane are subtle and essential contributors.

Be warned: on Thursday, at least, Chapel Arts was an intimate sweatbox of a venue. That’s why you’ll want to bring water. Otherwise, just go. You won’t be sorry.

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