To give it to you in a jazz-hand-delivered nutshell, The Better Half is an ensemble dance show, structured around dialogue from four different movies — Gaslight, The Bourne Identity, Scenes From a Marriage, and All the Real Girls — peppered with moments of slapstick in between. Sound a little postmodern? It is, but it's much more than that. At its most basic The Better Half offers a creative way to look at marriage. At its best and most complex, however, it constructs a world where characters are assigned a title, but confused they physically yearn, in spins, and leaps, and tilts, and upper-back arches, to understand the roles they're supposed to play and the relationships they're supposed to foster. If you guessed that it's a metaphor for life: bingo.
The show starts abruptly as the five cast members dressed in street clothes simply arrive on the empty black box and blink into the theater. Individual squares (ahem, symbolic boxes) of light appear on stage and a ginger-haired Timothy Heck takes a seat off stage right opening a script. It's only then, as each actor arrives in a pool of light that the ignorant audience member, who perhaps didn't take the time to read Susan Cohen's City Paper preview of the show, would start to figure out what the hell is going on. Which is to say if there's one villain in this production about marriage, it's the unhappy union of a very obtuse plot joined with occasional stretches of slow pacing. Luckily with time, it speeds up.
The narrator Heck assigns each actor a role from the 1944 film Gaslight. Mrs. Manningham is played by Lucky Plush co-creator and tiny Puck of a woman Julia Rhoads, while the psychologically abusive role of Mr. Manningham belongs to the surprisingly funny Adrian Danzig's. Performing the housekeeper Elizabeth is Meghann Wilkinson and playing for laughs the role of the young maid Nancy, is Francisco Aviña. But as a play with in a play, all is not how it should be.
"Do you know who you are yet?" the character Mrs. Manningham asks her husband. Each character is equally confused. The narrator withholds information and that collective perplexity drives the movement. Again and again Mr. and Mrs. Manningham repeat an emblematic pas de deux — the lifts, handclaps, and jumps representing the challenges of being a couple. This choreography is most compelling as Rhoads literally climbs up Danzig's' body arriving with her feet on his shoulders. Surprised, Mr. Manningham says something to the effect of "so you're going to stay up there?" to which the Mrs. replies "yeah." Welcome to marriage.
And while The Better Half shines in these token moments where the movie scripts fall aside and a natural dialogue emerges, I couldn't help but wish the production had allowed for more straight scenes of dance, especially given the casts incredible skill, most notably that of Aviña. He's allowed one solo seemingly apropos of nothing, but that's excusable once you see his tiny fluid body beautifully make mincemeat of the stage. Cascading across the floor to composer Mikhail Fiksel's blend of Latin/techno/elevator music Aviña is absolutely mesmerizing.
I won't give away how the show transitions from Gaslight into the three other movies. It's not necessary nor is the need to research those films on Wikipedia or watch excerpts on YouTube (although I confess I did do that). This is an experiential production, meant to be absorbed not parsed apart looking for minute meaning. And the audience seemed to understand that. As the crowd stood to give the Lucky Plush players a delayed ovation last night, murmurs of "Ooh, I really enjoyed that," were overheard. "It was, it was different," I caught one woman saying. And in the case of The Better Half, different is quite good.