My Onliness, Robert Lyons’ latest stage work, is a musical homage to Polish avant-garde playwright Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (active 1918-1934) but who resurfaced during the 1960’s when his works began to be published and translated. Directed by Daniel Irizarry who also plays the leading role as the Mad King, My Onliness with lyrics by Lyons and original music by Kamala Sankaram, resembles the anarchic East Village plays and happenings of the 1960’s. It is part of a through line from Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (1896) to Eugene Ionesco’s Exit the King (1962). A political fable for adults, My Onliness is performed as a cabaret and circus entertainment with exaggerated costumes, outrageous stage business, and audience participation. While the often obscure text is for the adventurous, it does touch on many hot current issues.
While Witkiewicz was particularly interested in the rise of totalitarianism, existential philosophy and the place of the artist in society, My Onliness includes all of these as well as such recent themes as ecology and torture, and the universal themes of life and death. His Onliness (Irizarry), a tyrannical and mad king, is presented with a petition by one of his subjects, Morbidita (Cynthia LaCruz). His nemesis the Writer (Rhys Tivey) criticizes his rule and life as we know it. Two court mediums (Dickie Hearts and Malik Paris) carry out the Mad King’s orders as well as perform expressive American Sign Language by Alexandra Wailes and Kailyn Aaron-Lozano. The sung portions of the show are backed by onstage musicians Joanie Brittingham on keyboard and Drew Fleming on guitar, both who also join in as part of the chorus.
Although Irizarry’s direction is organized anarchy, it follows the lead of such directors as Richard Foreman, Richard Schechner, Robert Wilson and Charles Ludlam. His over the top performance of the Mad King is neatly balanced by Tivey’s level-headed and rational portrayal of the Writer who is eventually destroyed by the tyrant. As Morbidita who is sometimes addressed by the king, LaCruz is passionate and intense. Brittingham is given the final song as an operatic aria that is expertly performed.
The design elements reflect the previous work of The Ridiculous Theatrical Company, the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre and The Performance Group. With the audience sitting on three sides of the playing area, Jungah Han’s minimal set suggests a king’s audience chamber with a great deal of red and a high yellow throne chair. The original costume design by James Terrell, enhanced by additional costumes by Brittani Beresford, suggest Renaissance commedia dell-arte, with the Mad King entirely in red. The lighting by Christina Tang variously changes the mood with different colors.
My Onliness is not for those who like their theater conventional and easy to understand. It is, however, audacious, bold and daring. It follows from a long tradition of European avant-garde theater while at the same time covering themes that are topical today. The cast is entirely in tune with both the cabaret and circus atmosphere that the production creates. It is mind expanding while being infuriatingly obscure. This is a show for those looking for something off the beaten path and that will not resemble anything you have seen recently. It is surprising that Witkiewicz’s own plays like The Water Hen, The Madman and the Nun, The Crazy Locomotive and The Mother are not performed in New York by the more adventurous theater companies.
My Onliness (through September 24, 2022)
One-Eighth Theater and IRT Theater
New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher Street, west of Hudson Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.newohiotheatre.org
Running time: 80 minutes without an intermission