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Saturday, April 29, 2017

Family life, fantasy life: Tamar Rogoff at La MaMa

Cover of Cherry Ames, Student Nurse (1943),
the first volume in Helen Wells's popular novel series for girls.
(from Collection of the Museum of Health Care)

Core cast members of Grand Rounds, a world premiere by Tamar Rogoff
Center: Cadence Rotarius
At left: Morgan Sullivan, Glen Heroy, Cyndy Gilbertson
At right: Jake Szczypek and Emily Pope
(photo: Asya Danilova)

In the 1950s world of
Grand Rounds, a 10-year-old inspired by the adventures of Cherry Ames, nurse and amateur sleuth, turns her perceptive gaze on the rituals of family life. What goes on behind closed doors and on the radio is fodder for her scientific reckonings. Rogoff invites audiences to sit bedsides to share the intimacy that propels her protagonist on a rescue mission of her own. 
-- from publicity for Grand Rounds

Core cast in rehearsal for Grand Rounds
(photo: Asya Danilova)

"They are the greatest cast I've ever worked with," said choreographer/director Tamar Rogoff after her world premiere of Grand Rounds at La MaMa's Ellen Stewart Theatre.

Well, they are certainly an interesting cast with individual backgrounds in everything from clowning for the Big Apple Circus to living with Parkinson's Disease. Working with all kinds of folks--even those without training in performance--is nothing new for the adventurous Rogoff. But while the unusual diversity of this cast, as well as their individual skills and all-in commitment, gives the work strength, none of that feels like enough. Even the expansive staging falls short of moving Grand Rounds from a curiosity to a consequential work of art.

Before seeing the show, I checked up on its title:
Medical Definition of grand rounds:  rounds involving the formal presentation by an expert of a clinical issue sometimes in the presence of selected patients (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

Grand rounds: A formal meeting at which physicians discuss the clinical case of one or more patients. Grand rounds originated as part of residency training wherein new information was taught and clinical reasoning skills were enhanced. Grand rounds today are an integral component of medical education. They present clinical problems in medicine by focusing on current or interesting cases. They are also sometimes utilized for dissemination of new research information. (MedicineNet)

You could say Rogoff brings her "patients" 'round to us--though, instead of hospital beds, we get a close-up view of beds in a family's home. The beds suggest a modest home and the relationships within.

Rogoff grew up the daughter of a doctor, and her research and work have led her to an understanding of the dual nature of her mission as an artist--transformation and healing. In this new work, she foregrounds a child--a stand-in for herself, one would assume--whose attraction to the Cherry Ames books, popular from the 1940s through the 1960s, leads her to examine family life with the avidity of a smart young sleuth. The happenings here are her "grand rounds," too.

To start, some of the audience members are made to sit on cardboard boxes for sitting shiva in traditional discomfort--clever, that--positioned around the performance space so that we face one of several makeshift beds. The characters--a young girl, her parents, her grandparents--will shift from bed to bed. But, at first, we don't know that. So, as dancers in front of you perform a long series of movements in and around a bed, you might find your interest drifting away to catch what's happening elsewhere, particularly when the noise over there distracts you.

But when I saw Grand Rounds last night, we only learned from Rogoff's Q&A that she had wanted each of us to stay focused on the bed directly in front of us. Since these initial performances rotate among the beds and repeat, she explained, we eventually get to see everything that each character does--the young soldier/brother handily slipping right beneath his bed and repeatedly lifting it like a set of weights, the grandparents coyly approaching each other and dancing to swing music, the parents (superb Emily Pope and Jake Szczypek) in stylized and tense, faintly erotic conflict.

So, are we mourners? Are we doctors on grand rounds? Or are we--each of us--that little blonde girl who shows up everywhere to eye, or maybe imagine, influence, remember--what happens in each instance? The answer could be any or all of these things, but the problem, as I see it, is that it ultimately does not matter. Intimations of mortality--for instance, in the doleful soundscore, in the eventually overused shiva boxes--lead to events too predictable, and to drawn out, to land with emotional force.

And what of the rest of the staging, a sort-of fantasy placed at a remote distance from all of us and perched high on the theater's usual seating risers, where hospital scenes with cutesy doctors, student nurses and a patient could have been excerpted from a Broadway musical?

Neither here nor there: I had some Cherry Ames books when I was a child. I don't remember a thing about them except having once thought, "Why don't I have Nancy Drew books like everybody else?"  This slight resentment that might or might not have been justified. I have no idea. We can talk, another time, about how my seamstress mother and aunt chose to adorn me relative to what every other girl was wearing at the time.

Grand Rounds continues through May 14, Wednesday to Saturday at 7pm; Sunday at 4pm.  For information and tickets, click here.

La Mama (Ellen Stewart Theatre)
66 East 4th Street (between 1st and 2nd Avenues), Manhattan

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