Sunday, December 4, 2016

109. Review: THE PORTAL (seen November 30, 2016)

"New Age Reflux"
Stars range from 5-1.
According to Luke Comer, the producer, director, and creative force behind The Portal, an artsy new multimedia rock musical at the Minetta Lane, the show was born in Boulder, CO, in 2011 and later shown to “ecstatic praise” in various venues in California and Colorado. It was then revised, again with “ecstatic” responses in Denver, before yet another overhaul for its New York premiere. In an interview with, Comer said he “was sheepish” about the move because of cultural differences between Denver and New York audiences. I suspect the Big Apple’s wolves will prove him right.
Company of The Portal. Photo: Russ Rowland.
The show—“driven by tribal, trance, and rock music!”—is described in its publicity material as “part concert, film, and live performance that together explore the human psyche and dive into things that matter most in life.” Audiences are told to receive it “with an open mind and willingness to slow down and look within.” The annual countercultural gathering called Burning Man is an acknowledged influence.
Jessica Aronoff, Billy Lewis, Jr., Marija Juliette Abney. Photo: Russ Rowland.
The Portal is what one might have expected to encounter on the West Coast during the height of the post-hippie/New Age movement of the late 60s/early 70s, as cool as your tie-dyed shirts, bellbottoms, and love beads, especially if you had a buzz on. It even has injunctions about peace and love, asking you to “open your heart wide to the body of life.” There are striking projections, pounding rock music, a couple of sexy female dancers, and an abundance of rock concert lighting (by Traci Klainer Polimeni) shooting beams in every direction (but often leaving the performers’ faces in shadows).  

It’s burdened, though, with a drearily portentous, allegoric narrative presented via a silent film that makes sense only if you’ve read (and remembered) its plot outline. This is projected, before the show begins, on the set’s band shell-like background of one circular arch within another. Peter Feuchtwanger and David Goldstein are the “scenic design consultants.”
Jessica Aronoff, Billy Lewis, Jr., Marija Juliette Abney. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Introduced by frontman Billy Lewis, Jr.—a singer who, with his long hair held in place by a headband, resembles an updated hippie—the show takes the audience into a “portal” (represented by a sun-like fractal image) where we watch filmed images of a contemporary “everyman,” Dante (Christopher Soren Kelly), struggling to overcome severe depression. Seeing his despair, I’d like to say it's because of the election results but it turns out (as per the PR material) it’s his rejection by his fiancĂ©e, Beatrice.
Marija Juliette Abney, Billy Lewis, Jr., Nicole Spencer. Photo: Russ Rowland.
The film, beginning in black and white and then shifting to color, takes Dante on a shamanic journey (see the writing of Mircea Eliade). Is it a dream? A hallucination induced by all those pills we see him popping? After exchanging his business suit, watch, and phone, for a full-length caftan and spear, his quest takes him across gorgeous landscapes (a mountainous, red rock desert, sylvan glades, a shimmering mountain lake), none seeming to have anything to do with the others.
Gilly Gonzalez, Billy Lewis, Jr., Paul Casanova. Photo: Russ Rowland.
As Dante wanders, we keep seeing images of a beautiful, ethereal girl with auburn bangs, wearing a sheer negligee, and with a cryptic smile on her face, passing through the greenery; she’s Beatrice (Zarah Mahler), of course, but it’s hard to make out just what’s on her mind or where she is in relation to Dante. A young boy (uncredited) in a caftan sometimes appears, mirroring Dante’s moves. Is he Dante as a boy? And what’s he there for? And who’s that middle-aged woman (also uncredited) we see for only a brief moment?
Billy Lewis, Jr. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Danger appears in the desert in the form of a business-suited man with a working TV for a head (wonder how they did that) who pursues Dante. Our depressed hero also encounters Death, a cowled, black-robed, Jedi-like figure, who wields, not a light saber or scythe but a fancy sword to do combat with Dante. Dante’s struggles with these forces are meant to indicate his attempt to “overcome the power they have over him” as he searches to discover his true self and achieve empowerment, but it’s all so affectedly elusive you couldn't care less. 
Gilly Gonzalez, Paul Casanova. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Instead, you sit back and watch the numerous fractal images that keep exploding on the screen. Beautiful as they are they grow increasingly tedious (unless, perhaps, you’re seriously stoned); just imagine having to keep your eyes endlessly glued to a kaleidoscope. Keeping things lively, however, are our spiritual guides, the talented Lewis and the two fine musicians (Gilly Gonzalez: percussion; Paul Casanova: guitar) to whom the focus keeps shifting. There are also those attractive dancers to gaze at, Nicole Spencer and Marija Juliette Abney the night I went; Jessica Aronoff, listed in the program, apparently alternates with them. Their exhaustive, non-narrative, modern dancing, choreographed by Jessica Chen, is well-executed but it's as repetitive as everything else on view.
Gilly Gonzalez, Billy Lwis, Jr., Paul Casanova. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Tierro Lee’s music, supplemented by the compositions of Kan’Nal and Lisa Gerard, is reportedly influenced by Pink Floyd and electronic dance music; as sung by Lewis, it often has an exotic, mystical, South Asian feeling, reminiscent of what you hear at Cirque du Soleil. Since the words, many derived from Khalil Ghibran's "The Prophet," are largely unintelligible (let's blame the sound system) they, too, have that Cirque quality, where the vocals create a mood rather than convey a meaning. And, before long, it all blends together in a loop of boring similarity.
Jessica Aronoff, Gilly Gonzalez, Billy Lewis, Jr., Paul Casanova, Marija Juliette Abney. Photo: Russ Rowland.
The Portal’s message about love and compassion is all well and good, and I wish I had more of those qualities to share here, but the show’s buried in such a mountain of self-conscious pretension that it may exceed a New York audience’s climbing skills. At least that’s what seemed to be the case when, a half hour into the intermissionless, 90-minute performance, two people up front left on a journey in search of their own nearest portal.


Minetta Lane Theatre
18 Minetta Lane, NYC
Through December 31