If "What’s That on My Head!?!"
were any more cutting edge it might slit viewers’ throats.
As it is, this latest madcap adventure by the National Theater of the United States of America (NTUSA), now playing in DUMBO’s Nest Arts Complex, takes audiences right to the edge, gives everyone a good look, then yanks them all back again.
The "taking" in this case is literal. "What’s That on My Head!?!" is a 1964 World’s Fair-type romp that presents 400 years in American history as seen through the kaleidoscope lens of NTUSA writers and performers.
The audience sits in swivel seats bolted onto a rolling platform pushed back and forth by several hardy cast members. A flashing light-studded garage door that opens and closes the passageway and curtains on either side permits a mind-boggling number of scenes - all accompanied by costume (Kirstin Tobiasson) changes that in and of themselves are worthy of an OBIE, and enough light (Ben Kato) and sound (Jody Eff and Porkhed Stu) cues to send many stage managers to Bellevue.
The history unveiled in "What’s That on My Head!?!" unfolds as part of a game show that involves three contestants, a panel of celebrities, an intergalactic game show host having a bad hair day (Jonathan Jacobs), his bearded sidekick (Mark Doskow) and a monster (China E. Cline) whose main role seems to be lurching about menacingly.
After the contestants are asked to guess what object has been placed on their heads, everyone becomes part of chronologically ordered vignettes depicting key moments in American history. The vignettes are peppered with dancing, singing and declaiming executed with a frenzy that makes one imagine vaudeville on speed, and interrupted periodically by commercials for a nonspecific group of products.
The journey begins in old England where King Charles proclaims the founding of the American colonies, after which the audience crosses the Atlantic (the platform actually moves gently back and forth) and witnesses the early colonists stealing or finagling the land from Indians.
The adventure continues as the colonists struggle to establish a foothold in the New World, the rich and pious take advantage of the poor and the Revolutionary War is fought and won.
Then a quick transition to the Civil War (a bowling ball rolls frighteningly toward the audience with the ominous message that we are all cannon fodder) and the audience arrives at a Wild West saloon, the Temperance Movement (featuring one of this reviewer’s favorite stupid songs of the ’60s "My Baby Does the Hanky-Panky") and a World War I veteran thanking his country for giving him the chance "to make a man of myself."
Then comes the Great Depression ("It’s not so great") and President Herbert Hoover seated in a comfortable armchair observing the homeless camped out on the White House lawn. Finally there’s the Roaring Twenties (a little out of historical order), the Atomic Age and the Cold War, and a grim ending that seems to predict endless paranoia and panic.
NTUSA is a Brooklyn-based collaborative founded by a group of theater people who met at Skidmore College and the Williamstown Theater Festival in the mid-’90s. After their first two shows, "Placebo Sunrise" and "Garvey & Superpants$!: Episode 23," new members were attracted to the group.
Members pride themselves on their democratic process in which "each company member’s skills, passions and ideas serve as the impetus for the NTUSA’s original theatrical works." There can be no doubt about the originality of "What’s That on My Head!?!" But a little discipline mixed into this democracy might have gone a long way to making this a more focused production.
"What’s That on My Head!?!" contains many unnecessary characters and scenes that could have easily been omitted. Most of the time the platform rolls back and forth with evident purpose, but at times the experience is something like being lost at sea. ’Where is this play going, how will it get there, and has it indeed arrived?’ are all questions that are not always answered.
Some people, however, may not mind the uncertainties in this production. After all, this is not the America we learned about in history class, so why should it be the theater we learned about in drama class?
Whatever one’s theatrical preferences, the energy, originality and great sense of fun that NTUSA demonstrates in "What’s That on My Head!?!" make the show worthy of attention. This journey through history is one you really shouldn’t miss.
The National Theater of the United States of America’s production of "What’s That on My Head!?!" plays through Feb. 8, Thursdays through Sundays at 8 pm. Tickets are $15. The Nest arts complex is located at 88 Front St. at the corner of Washington Street in DUMBO. For reservations, call (212) 615-6607. For more information, visit www.ntusa.org.