Despite Grim Moments, Experimental 'Le Cabaret Grimm' Rolls Along

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A production still from The Performance LAB's "Le Cabaret Grimm." (Courtesy Jesse Slavick)
A production still from The Performance LAB's "Le Cabaret Grimm." (Courtesy Jesse Slavick)

An experimental theater troupe in Boston. Dozens of intricate puppets and masks. A series of avant-garde opening acts.

Laughing, Jason Slavick says, "The economy is so bad, this is just, like, such a dumb idea, and just, what idiot thought of this?"

Actually, he did.

Slavick has had a long career in Boston, doing primarily literary theater. But about two years ago, he became obsessed with creating something different for this city. Something made here, with a mish-mash of arts. Everything from modern dance to puppetry.

And so he created the Performance LAB, a theatrical endeavor with the mission of creating experimental theater for mainstream venues. First up is a punk cabaret fairy tale, "Le Cabaret Grimm", which opens Thursday at the Boston Center for the Arts.

At a recent rehearsal, Slavick, now the LAB's artistic director, works with his young cast. Many have gone, or are still going, to area schools and conservatories for theater and dance. He’s had to scramble for funding and a venue to stage “Grimm."

Actors rehearse "Le Cabaret Grimm." (Courtesy Aaron Sherkow)
Actors rehearse "Le Cabaret Grimm." (Courtesy Aaron Sherkow)

This day is the first time with the band, with dance, with everything all together. It's going well, but Slavick admits he’s primed to expect disaster.

"There are so many different parts involved," Slavick says.

Right now, he's worried about costumes.

"There’s a mask artist who’s coming in with his thing, and the masks all have to work together and be finished and the actors have to have time to work with them," Slavick says, "and then there’s a variety of these props and puppets. One of the really involved ones didn’t come out in a usable way."

That would be the clunky conjoined twin puppet that’s a central character in Slavick’s dark fairy tale. It almost caused bodily harm to Ally Tully, the petite actress who has to manipulate it on stage.

"There are corners at the bottom of it, so it was so heavy that I would lose control of it so I was like jumping out of the way of the corners, which wouldn’t be good on stage," Tully said.

Feature productions like “Le Cabaret Grimm” aren't the only part of the Performance LAB’s mission. Slavick is also bringing in quirky pre-show acts from around the city in an effort he’s billing "The Hubbub."

"There’s circus arts, and there’s burlesque and cabaret and all kinds of really fun alternative things going on in the city but people don’t really know about it — it’s all in segmented places," Slavick explains. "And I want the Performance LAB to be a bridge between the mainstream arts community and the mainstream audience, and the fringe, experimental community in Boston. "

Johnny Blazes is a Vaudevillian performer in Boston and usually works in smaller, underground venues. She’s emceeing the Hubbub. While she’s excited about the concept of the project, she worried that Boston might be too uptight for it.
"I think we’re really in the middle of a profound cultural shift in terms of the taste of Boston theater audiences and I think we’re ready for some adventure."
"You know in a way it’s bringing high brow and low brow together, but it’s also kind of saying f*** the brow idea," she said.

Slavick, on the other hand, is absolutely confident that the Performance LAB can achieve its mission. He thinks there’s a lot of people in Boston who do want to see aggressive theater bringing something new to the area.

Scott Edmiston, a long-time Boston theater director and the head of the Arts Office at Brandeis University, agrees that Boston is ready for it. Edmiston points to the risks Diane Paulis has taken with the American Repertory Theater's successful productions “Sleep No More” and “The Donkey Show.”

"I think we’re really in the middle of a profound cultural shift in terms of the taste of Boston theater audiences and I think we’re ready for some adventure," Edmiston said. "And this might be a part of it, this might be the beginning of a new journey."

But unlike those A.R.T. shows, which first played in the United Kingdom and New York, Slavick’s is completely homegrown.

"New York is great, but, so we’ve schlepped into something else from New York, great, yeah, New York," he said. "I want to go from Boston and say, 'Hey, New York, here’s what Boston has to show you.' "

So that’s Jason Slavick’s long term goal for the Performance LAB. Right now, though, he’s just rolling with the punches that keep coming at him as he puts the finishing touches on "Grimm," even in the 11th hour. In fact, a main actor bowed out just this week, days before opening night.

Slavick says he’s not worried because, frankly, there’s no point.

"It’s live theater, you know. You’re like, 'Guess that didn’t work, try something else!' "

“Le Cabaret Grimm” opens Thursday night at the Boston Center for the Arts.

This program aired on April 8, 2010.

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Andrea Shea Correspondent, Arts & Culture
Andrea Shea is a correspondent for WBUR's arts & culture reporter.



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