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Fork Lifts Split-Knuckle Theater

by Allan Appel | Jun 3, 2014 1:13 pm

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Posted to: Arts & Culture, Theater

Over a spinach omelet and hash browns at the Pantry restaurant, Actor and director Greg Webster suddenly lifted his fork from the plate and leaned forward. The silverware became a trendy new cell phone. The shining tines became the prow of a ship breaking Antarctic ice back in 1914.

Such transformations endowing physical objects with meaning—and movement—are at the heart of the aesthetic of Webster and his Split Knuckle Theater.

They’re bringing their production of Endurance to Long Wharf Theatre to begin the theater’s summer season on June 17. The show runs through June 29 on the theater’s Stage II.

Click on the video above to see a spontaneous demonstration of the technique, which derives from the work of theater theoretician Jacques Lecoq.

And click on this video for a trailer of the play, which has had hundreds of performances in 19 countries, after its birth at the University of Connecticut, where Webster has been teaching theater and movement for the last eight years.

Webster said the genesis of the play was a dream back in 2008. In the dream, his friend was on top of a copier machine being bitten and attacked by a cyclone of paper. The next day, after the dream, Webster saw a documentary about the arctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. Add to the mix that too-big-to-fail banks and insurance companies were in fact beginning to fail.

The result, through a collaborative, jazz-like creation process:  a play that juxtaposes explorer Ernest Shackleton’s true arctic survival drama with a fictional insurance department in Hartford.

There the Shackelton coefficient, a nondescript claims manager named Walter Spivey, must marshal the talent and attitudes of his overwhelmed office staff against similarly daunting odds.

How can his paper-pushing crew survive the economic downturn and a conglomerate that are as unforgiving as arctic cold?

Along the way, an office table turns into the Endurance, Shackelton’s’ ship. The office photocopier becomes a penguin that will become the night’s dinner.

The dissonance between the two struggles makes the points of tangency often zany in a frenzied Marx Brothers sort of way. Whereas Groucho used punning and the malleability of words to make his points and his humor, the Split Knuckle guys have the objects doing the punning; they mine the malleability of objects, bodies, and movements.

The result is that more serious themes are also being engaged. Or, as another Lecoq’s maxim goes, “The body knows what the mind does not.”

In an interview at the Pantry, Webster took some bites of his omelet and shared his hash browns along with his passions for boxing, martial arts, and Buddhism. He called “physical theater” an unfortunate term because, he reasoned, all theater is physical.

He likened the work of Split Knuckle to the productions of Peter Brook, where the imagination of the audience is engaged in a lot of the heavy lifting.

“A big part of our aesthetic is how we take simple objects and endow them with an alternate life. It’s more about ‘moving the space.’ Suddenly you’re having a conversation in the lunchroom and then you’re on the deck of a great ship,” he said.

Webster lives on Nash Street and is a regular at the Pantry. This will be the first time Endurance will be performed on a stage as big as the Long Wharf’s and in New Haven. He termed the whole experience a “homecoming” to Connecticut.

The even better news: Webster and the company, who are far flung internationally and also in New York City, are on the search to find a space to make their home in our town.

After Endurance, the next production is scheduled to be The Curious Case of Phineas Gage. That’s based on the story of the eponymous a railroad construction worker who by mistake drives a spike through his frontal lobe, That is, he lobotomizes himself and survives, but with quite a change to his personality.

“It’s a musical too,” said Webster.

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