Thomas Burns Scully
- OnStage New York Critic
The Portal promises to be many things. A rock odyssey, an immersive performance experience, a shamanic journey of transcendence and empowerment. An audience, however, is hard pressed to take any of this away with them. A vaguely purposed Billy Lewis Jr. chants his way through partly live, partly pre-recorded music while Marija Juliette Abney, Jessica Aronoff and Nicole Spencer expertly dance and contort about him. He is joined frequently by percussionist Gilly Gonzalez and guitarist Paul Casanova, who augment the show’s music with their impressive live stylings. While all this is happening, astral VFX and pre-recorded film (starring Christopher Soren Kelly, Zarah Mahler, and Joey Calveri) fill in screens at the back and side of the stage. The effect is often technically impressive, but rarely conveys any kind of meaning or story. Furiously talented performers are wasted on this show that has no substance whatsoever. Between it’s idealistic Burning Man pretensions, clean-cut non-denominative new-age psychedelia aesthetic, and a lowest common denominator allegory of modern life, The Portal simultaneously tries too hard and does nothing all at the same time.
There is no real plot of which to speak. This feels purposeful, but leaves the audience alienated and without a way to identify with anyone on the stage. Or the screen behind it for that matter. In the show’s film, a man (Dante) pursues a woman (Beatrice) through majestic desert and alpine landscapes. He appears to be a victim of metropolitan lifestyle, having to shed the lies of business, Blackberries, TV and fancy suits in order to continue his pursuit. On his way he is followed by death and meets his inner child. He eventually learns… something. Or not. It’s impossible to tell. Portal’s presumed deeper meaning is deeply incoherent. Taken on its own merits, the film is well shot, but dull. A first year film school indulgence pretending at depth, revealing its own shallowness. Taken as part of the whole, it feels misguided. All of the, already limited, plot development of the show takes place in this film, leaving the live performance to form a vestigial happening around it. Billy Lewis and company therefore cater to the film, not the other way around, in a complete abuse of the theatrical medium.
Billy Lewis Jr’s unnamed guide character moves and sings exhaustively on stage, but as far as can be seen, contributes nothing to the development of the piece. He has obvious talent, but it is a resource used sparingly here. The show’s dancers are phenomenal, as is Jessica Chen’s choreography. When twinned with the show’s fearsome live musicians, they form The Portal’s only exceptional scene: a blisteringly fast dance and music battle. This ends quickly however, and the shamanic dirge continues. Portal shambles on slowly, like the awkward hybrid of Pink Floyd concert, modern dance workshop, student film, VFX mix tape, and self-help book that it is, eventually reaching a bewildering non-conclusion. Rather than being an experience of the transcendental, it feels like the stoned ramblings of a Philosophy dropout. While all it’s technical elements are good, often excellent, they do not serve to create meaning or advance a story. The show’s book and lyrics are filled with unspecific truisms, and not much else. There is nothing to this show. Nothing at all. For all its pretensions at a deeper understanding of the universe, and a subversion of the musical theatre genre, it is one of the shallowest, least insightful shows playing in New York right now. You will find more spiritual enlightenment at The Rockettes.
The Portal runs at the Minetta Lane Theatre. www.theportalnyc.com
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US, the Abbey Theatre Dublin and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His theatrical writing has been performed on three continents. He performs improv comedy professionally and plays a mean lead guitar. He has been referred to as the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.
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Photo: Billy Lewis Jr. (Russ Rowland)