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Jack Anderson

Goode, With Twist

Joe Goode Performance Group
Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue at 19th Street, Chelsea
April 23-26, 2009
Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; $39, $25, $19
Tickets: (212) 242-0800 or www.Joyce.org
Reviewed by Jack Anderson April 24, 2009

Wonderboy is a winsome lad. The title character in the Joe Goode Performance Group's "Wonderboy" spends a lot of time in front of a window gazing at the street, marveling with expressive gestures at what he sees, and sometimes commenting verbally on it. When he rises to walk, he teeters a bit, yet gets around well, which may be surprising, given the fact that Wonderboy is a puppet. The show is a collaboration (quite a felicitous one) between Goode, a choreographer, and Basil Twist, a puppeteer.

It's soon apparent that Wonderboy is hypersensitive, afraid of, as well as curious about, the outside world. And it gradually becomes clear that he's gay and may possibly grow up to be an artist of some kind. Mentally and emotionally, he's no dummy and, even though he's a puppet, he's physically nimble. He's so endearing that it's sometimes easy to forget he's not human; he may even appear more human than the real human dancers swirling through the street, although some of them, when they turn romantic, also look endearing.

What gets Wonderboy moving are dancers who manipulate him much as attendants manipulate figures in Japanese bunraku puppet dramas. But whereas the Japanese human attendants are clad in black to suggest they're really invisible, Goode's dancers are costumed by Wendy Sparks to indicate they're city dwellers or members of Wonderboy's family. And when Wonderboy speaks, his lines are recited by some of the dancers. Wonderboy lives in a community.

But he does not fully belong to it. His parents quarrel, and leave him alone to gaze from his window, lamenting, "All I do is weep and tremble." He sighs, too, at what he calls the "rumpled beauty" of a boy he notices, and the way dancers pair off in tender and sinuous duets, both straight and gay. Although homophobic passersby taunt him, he does venture outside to touch young men. He's growing up, and possibly gaining confidence.

When Wonderboy speaks, the dancers assigned his lines occasionally adopt squeaky namby-pamby voices that over-emphasize the drama's hints of self-pity. So, too, dour observers could term the frequently sweet music by Carla Kihlstedt and Matthias Bossi and the happy ending sentimental.

Certain matters are left essentially unexamined: for instance, the fact that in order to act at all, Wonderboy has to be manipulated. The production might have had a bit of sting if Goode and Twist had pondered more on how social manipulation can affect the development of both gays and artists: how much are we all puppets?

Yet growls about sentimentality are stilled: it's too hard to resist the sight of Wonderboy eventually flying over the stage and up the aisle above the audience. "Wonderboy'' is heart-warming.

Theatergoers seeking sting might have found it in the excerpts from Goode's "Maverick Strain" (1996), which opened the evening. Supposedly derived from Arthur Miller's screenplay for "The Misfits," it put Goode's company of seven in glitzy Western attire and set the women wiggling and the men strutting in parodies of cowboy dramas and country music. Commenting on gender stereotypes and our fascination with violence, the action was usually very, and presumably deliberately, corny.

"Maverick Strain" hammered its satiric points. But, although it sent its own messages, "Wonderboy" also had wonder.

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