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Senseless Beating 

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at the Shubert Theatre, November 22-27

When is a clever trick just clever shtick? When you take a trick to virtuoso levels, is it still just a trick? Paraphrasing Mao, can revelation grow out of the barrel of a trick?

I can't quite say that these were the questions going through my mind when I left Stomp's performance at the Shubert. I was still giddy, sort of oxygen-deprived in the thin air at the top of the mountain of newer and better tricks they performed in their concert of "percussion theater." Each trick begins simply: in the first, a guy starts by sweeping the floor, but each sound from the broom is captured by the microphones onstage. The sound of the sweeping, the broom being tapped on the floor, and the guy's sniffs together make a little ditty out of a rhythm. Next the trick is fleshed out: the first guy is joined by five other men and two women, all sweeping. Their movements gradually become synchronized until the brooms are brushing and being slapped on the floor in 4/4 time.

Then comes the sheer inventiveness that is so lethally charming. The sweepers, wearing heavy Doc Martens-style boots, start to stomp their feet, but some of them also tap dance: they've attached cleats to their soles. Suddenly, tapping their broom handles on the floor, they seem like old-fashioned dancers with canes caught in a punk working-class world. That image is given its due, but they don't dwell on it. The action reaches a crescendo: performers start slapping the brooms together like hockey players scrambling for a puck. Handles break, and other brooms are tossed from the wings. Finally each section is brought to a quiet close: the first guy drums two broom handles delicately on the floor until the sound disappears into the whisper of brushing brooms from the other performers.

Each Stomp section is a marvel of construction in which a simple percussion idea using everyday objects is developed into a virtuoso wonder, and a more complex idea often peeks through. Loud passages ease naturally into more controlled passages, then the sounds bubble out again, in a progression closer to the stately succession of a symphony than to the razzmatazz of a music revue.

But all the sections are also constructed the same way, and linked together by a running comic bit about a lumpen intellectual. Dressed in the uniform of the artiste--beret, black clothes, wire-rimmed glasses, ponytail, and thin beard--the intellectual keeps coming up with grandiose harebrained schemes, such as a huge broom with two handles. When he can't find anyone to use his invention, he sweeps the floor with it himself.

Since the basic structure of each section is the same, the only way to avoid boredom is to invent better and brasher tricks, which Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas, who created and directed Stomp, do very well. They also show they're aware of the problem. Just when I was getting tired of the repetition, when a funny but mean-spirited comic section about the intellectual rattling a newspaper made me think that Cresswell and McNicholas had reached the limits of their inventiveness, three men wearing 20-gallon oil drums as shoes stomped onto the stage like Godzillas, chasing off the skinny intellectual. These Godzillas even do a little tap dance, clicking their oil-drum heels. Here it's as plain as day that Stomp prefers pure technique over namby-pamby meaning.

But if Cresswell and McNicholas want to play the game of pure technique, they need to play it better. The only two musically memorable sections are those not set in a rock-and-roll time signature. In one of them, the performers strike lengths of tubing on the floor to make an echoing pure pitch, a kind of new-age space music whose highlight is a tantalizing delayed high pitch ending each musical phrase. In the other, two men in slings are suspended from the top of a wire-mesh wall with pieces of junk attached to it. They swing from side to side as if rappelling down the wall, and their steady, easy swing creates a strong rhythm. With such a simple rhythmic base, the percussion they play on the junk is more open and generous than the other music.

If Stomp has a revelation, it's in the encore. Using mime, Cresswell reminded the audience that its clapping is the kind of raw material Stomp uses. In this call-and-response bit, Cresswell gave the audience steadily more difficult rhythms to clap out, demanding precise execution each time. He then asked the audience to just snap their fingers softly as he left the stage. But as soon as he left, the audience abandoned their task and started clapping wildly. Cresswell could not have made it clearer that the difference between him and us is discipline.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steve McNicholas.

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