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    Off to see the blizzard

    Melancholy and sweet, "Nharcolepsy" takes us on a strange, cool, sleep-obsessed Yeti safari.


    Transport yourself back to high school, if you would, or whenever it was you slugged through, with ardor or ambivalence, Flaubert's Madame Bovary. Forget Emma however, and think instead upon Gustave. Did you know that all the while, in the back of the mind of this naturalist author, a writer of surgical precision, was a dream — vague and mystical — of finding the Yeti. That unsatisfied with the complicated disappointments of the literary indulgences of wives in their adulterous passions, Flaubert really longed for something far more transporting: to witness the dance of the Yeti up in the North Pole (the Yeti having abandoned Nepal for the Pole after too many Gortex-clad ecotourists disturbed his 'hood, it seems). Lucky man, he died happy, of hypothermia and satisfaction, having witnessed the dance of the Yeti, up in the frosty Arctic.

    Written and performed by: Richard Harrington, Chris Kauffman.
    Directed by: Patricia Buckley.
    Choreography by: Abby Bender.
    Sound design by: Ian Murphy.

    Related links: Official site
    The Red Room
    85 East 4th St. near 2nd Ave.
    Aug. 8-24, 2003

    Richard Harrington and Chris Kauffman's "Nharcolepsy," presented at this year's Fringe Festival and many other city's fringes besides, follows Gustave (Harrington) and his companion Nhar (Kauffman) in their search for the Yeti. Primarily Gustave tells it, though Nhar treats us to quite a strange and beautiful rendition of "Stormy Weather" near the play's opening. This comes after a prelude sequence in which Nhar wordlessly puts two figures on top of a globe and covers them with shaving cream — later recognizable as their setting amid the icecaps. Once Gustave begins, however, he is content to narrate the rest, with the subdued, melancholic, deadpan demonstrations of Nhar as an aide.

    The tale involves a favorite Norwegian grandmother and her lasting influence on Gustave's decision to follow his "childish dream" of finding the Yeti. Following their career as cabaret singers (presumably following Gustave's better-known literary career), the death of Grandma and receipt of the Peugeot bequeathed to Gustave, which they trade for a boat, Gustave and Nhar go to the North Pole, search for the Yeti, witness the Yeti, and die.

    After an introduction which locates us, the audience, in the theater of their, Gustave and Nhar's, minds, during the last delusional throes of hypothermia (they are cabaret singers after all, this is their last show, and they knew we would come . . . and we did), the chronology of the Yeti search begins. Interspersing straight storytelling with songs ("And now the song about the importance of Norwegian grandmothers") and documentary-like frames ("and here we have the Yeti. . .") the tale advances gently. There is always time, in this construction, to indulge a scenic idea and indeed it's more of a sequence of these ideas — songs, skits almost — than a narrative, though the storyline is in the end relatively binding. These scenes unfailing display the considerable charm of the two performers, especially Kauffman's comedic miming, which feels somehow very old-school and French and very nice too.

    Trading in the simplifying nature of a displaced setting, mostly via the evocative charm of Gustave's French-Belgian accent and the half-missing voice of Nhar (who rarely speaks anyway), "Nharcolepsy" generates a storybook air about it, developing a picturesque kind of sympathy that fills the humor, cleverness and contemporaneity of the whole play with a soft, nostalgic lining. Although occasionally disrupted by self-aware jokes with little bearing on the content of the play, it is this soft sadness which I was left with after the thing was over.

    Those jokes, those interruptions, struck me during the play as tailored for a Fringe Festival setting, the fringe being some sub-genre of comic theater that seems to expect a liberal amount of undercutting, sophomoric goofing distributed throughout. I got to wondering how the play would be reconstituted within a different set of parameters. Ah, but I'm a fan of dreaminess.

    After a summoning song on the zither, Gustave encounters the Yeti (really the mysterious Nhar in a Yeti mask). "And here we have the Yeti." A documentary break reveals that the Yeti acts cool like, maybe like an Azerbaijani rock star is cool. By which I mean, super cool. The Yeti then summons Gustave to show him the Yeti dance — that most fulfilling of dances, which no man has ever seen, and after seeing which no man could die anything but a happy man. Choreographed by Abby Bender, the Yeti dance, a little bit silly, a little bit cool (like Azerbaijani cool) really is a beaut, especially when Gustave joins in, and it takes on the dimensions of multiplication — that magical thing of unison dancing. Queen pours in through the speakers. We are the champions. My friend.

    When we entered the theater a nice lady at the door requested that we take two snowballs, and the loveliest image of the play had to do with these snowballs, which we were instructed to throw at Nhar whenever he fell asleep, to help save him from hypothermia's delusions. Or from his colepsy. His Nhar-colepsy. In the end, when triumphant, nay championic, Gustave lies down to sleep — to die — he gets pelted with a funeral shower of balls from the concerned audience. The sight of him lying there as balls fly at him and past him, without his awaking, is really truly effectively sad. Tossing my ball I feel like a mad kid. He does wake up a few times, asks us not to worry, to say goodbye to Nhar for him, and then finally goes to sleep. Nhar reappears, takes off the Yeti mask, lays the globe — plastic men — shaving cream sculpture down, and then finally himself. A happy, and final, Nharcoleptic sleep.

    Exceedingly pleasant and sweet, the real substance of "Nharcolepsy" is the understated charm and good humor of Harrington and Kauffman, who deliver, without pretensions, not the romantic passion of Emma B but an unflinchingly calm and sweet love — like you'd feel towards your dog — for the Yeti, for childish dreams, and indeed, for the whole snowy world.

    AUGUST 25, 2003

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