Citing such masters as Charlie Chaplin and Gene Kelly as inspiration certainly sets the bar high in terms of expectations. But those are among the influences on I Love Bob, the latest show from the spirited, inventive troupe Parallel Exit, which is opening at Joyce Soho this week. Their earlier works have merrily defied categorization, winning over theater and dance critics alike; this world premiere focused on the misadventures of a hapless deliveryman could be identified as either a “comic ballet” or a “dance musical,” according to its co-creator and Parallel Exit founder Mark Lonergan.
“We create an outline from which we work—which is essentially just stage directions—and then the material is really created in the rehearsal room with the performers,” he said recently by phone in between rehearsals
I Love Bob, with a cast of 12, is the largest work Parallel Exit has undertaken. “They are a diverse group. Some come from the world of tap, since there’s tap choreography in the show. Some of them come from a more musical theater background and some from an improv/comedy background. We’re putting all of their skills to use. It’s not a group that wd normally be put together—only for a show like this!”
Lonergan, choreographer Ray Hesselink and composer Wayne Barker are the show’s co-creators. The genesis for the project was a Joyce residency; Lonergan and his colleagues were part of an ambitious initiative focusing on collaboration and experimentation between dance and theater artists. The residency provided a dramaturg, Kirsten Bowen, who brought her expertise and an outside eye to the creative process.
“It was a very new thing for all of us, to have that person in the room,” Lonergan remarked. “And it was immensely helpful, because her focus was on making sure that we were getting the story across clearly.”
There is a definite story and specific characters, but no text; Parallel Exit’s approach, in shows that range from a tale of aging tap dancers about to lose their home to a witty depiction of office life aims to recreate onstage the comic, expressive art of silent film masters like Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
With company mainstay Ryan Kasprzak portraying Bob, “The story follows a very classic structure. The one film I would say it’s closest to would be City Lights—and only in the sense that it’s about two very innocent characters falling in love in the midst of a teeming metropolis,” Lonergan said.
Lonergan founded Parallel Exit in his native Toronto. The first time he brought one of its shows to New York, it won the top award at the 1997 New York International Fringe Festival. He continued to originate shows in Toronto and bring them here before relocating in 2005. Recent Parallel Exit shows have been presented on both dance and theater venues and have received a Drama Desk Award for “unique theatrical experience.” They manage to charm both dance and theater critics.
The New York Times’ Neil Genzlinger called Room 17B, their most recent show, “65 minutes of outlandish incongruity,” writing, “The whole thing is so charming and mindlessly amusing that it may not be immediately apparent just how much skill is on display.” The Times’ dance critic, Roslyn Sulcas, writing about their earlier show Time Step, praised its “wordless yet lucid physical comedy”.
Though Lonergan and Hesselink, a choreographer and dance instructor whose credits include training the children who performed in Billy Elliot, are working together for first time, Lonergan reports that the collaboration has been “seamless.”
“In the rehearsal room, Ray and I are finishing each other’s sentences. Often I’ll say to Ray, ‘In this bit of choreography, could you try this?’ and then when we’re doing more of an acting moment, Ray will step in and suggest, ‘Try this.’ We’re very careful not to give the performers two different ideas at the same time. We let each other step in when the moment is right,” Lonergan said.
Lonergan also has high praise for the third collaborator, composer Wayne Barker, who among his multiple and varied credits wrote the original music for Peter and the Starcatcher. “Wayne has an encyclopedic knowledge of the last 200 years of music. He sits at the piano as we’re working on something, and he’ll play something. He has an unbelievable Rolodex of every style of music in his head. I imagine there are many things that I don’t even know he’s sourcing.”
Though Lonergan and his colleagues look to past masters for inspiration and pay homage in their work, he emphasizes that the show itself is very much of today. “The show isn’t set in the past. It’s very current—the subject matter and the characters. But it certainly has the feeling of a classic movie musical or a classic silent film comedy.”
I Love Bob
July 20-29. Joyce Soho, 155 Mercer St. (betw. Houston & Prince St.), www.joyce.org; 7:30, $25.
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