Beatnik Giselle

Ryan Hill and Kate Guentzel in the Sandbox Theatre’s “Beatnik Giselle.” Photo by Richard Fleischman Photography.

by SOPHIE KERMAN
You can always rely on the Sandbox Theatre, with its years-long play development process, to present something new, challenging, and seamlessly executed. Beatnik Giselle, performed for just one weekend at the Southern Theater, tackles heavy questions of sexuality and self-expression through a framework of dance, music, and Beat poetry: not a traditional piece of theater by any means, but one which draws on interesting material and does it well.

The staging immediately pits male against female and spoken word against physical expression. On one side of the stage, Allen Ginsburg (Ryan Hill), Jack Kerouac (Derek Lee Miller), Bob Kaufman (Theo Langason) and Neal Cassady (Derek Meyer) try to one-up each other’s poetry in a battle for rhythm, sound, and raw truth. Both laughably pretentious and painfully earnest, the quartet of Beat poets embody a search for authenticity that is historically accurate without sacrificing its modern relevance. (You may be shocked to learn that every line in the play, except one, was written by the cast: in many scenes, the ensemble may have outdone the Beats themselves.)

On the other side is a group of female dancers lead by Gigi (Kate Guentzel), who has returned to the company after a suspicious nine-week absence. Unlike the men, they don’t have the freedom to spend their time in bars knocking back shots and writing poetry. They are more concerned about getting their modern dance company – a burgeoning style in the 1950s – off the ground and building their credibility both as dancers and, one gets the sense, as independent, professional women.

Artistically, the poetry, dance, and music act in perfect counterpoint to one another. With Tim DonahueJacqueline Ultan, and Greg Schutte providing a trio of keyboard/bass, cello, and drums, the mood can swing flexibly between the rhythm of Beat poetry and the more fluid movements of the dancers. The dialogue within the female ensemble tends to be overblown, but all six dancers (Guentzel, plus Katie BradleyNicole Devereaux, Erika Hansen, Zainab Musa, and Heather Stone) express far more through their choreography than they do through their script.

Although the staging suggests a battle of the sexes, it is in the moments that men and women come together – an electric ensemble scene and a seriously steamy pas-de-trois between Ginsburg, Cassady, and Gigi – that the true conflicts come out. Both the poets and the dancers have many different ideas about love, from momentary infatuation to life-long commitment, but it quickly becomes clear that both Ginsburg and Gigi have strayed too far from the accepted path. In a series of well thought-out moments at the end, however, we are reminded that even after being ostracized from their respective groups, the two “deviants” have dramatically different ranges of possibility. Just as the Beats’ wild poetics seem like a marker of privilege next to the ballerinas’ hours of rehearsal, Ginsburg’s complaints to Kaufman and advice to Gigi are subtle but unmistakable indicators of latent hierarchies of race, gender, and sexuality.

Beatnik Giselle is not heavy on plot, but its 90 minutes are never boring. Project Leads Nicole Devereaux and Derek Lee Miller have conceived a work that asks pointed questions without being preachy, and interweaves spoken word, modern dance, and live music in a way that feels vital, not artistically over-indulgent. If you are expecting traditional dramatic arc and character development, the play comes up short; as a hybrid theatrical experience, however, it is as politically provocative as it is beautiful to watch.

Beatnik Giselle by the Sandbox Theatre. At the Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave S, Minneapolis, MN 55454. October 19-21. Tickets $15-30 from http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/236478.

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