‘Batch’ is a spectacular head-scratcher

The cast of “Batch.”: Photo by Harlan Taylor

The cast of “Batch.”: Photo by Harlan Taylor

“Batch,” the last full-length production of this year’s Humana Festival, pushes the envelope just shy of the point of breaking through to brilliance. New Paradise Laboratories, known for its experimental theater, is to be commended for trying something new by using multimedia techniques, electronic music and extreme physicality to engage the senses.

The show deconstructs that cheesy rite-of-passage ceremony that is as old as ancient Greece and practiced today by many heterosexuals just before marriage. Six actors (three men, three women) play all the roles, alternating between male and female, to demonstrate how gender can be meaningless these days.

As the audience files in to the bar where drag queens usually reign, Betsy Competitive stands alone on the stage specially constructed for this performance. Garbed in a slinky red dress, she slowly pivots, with one hand behind her back, her fingers crossed. She dreamily examines her engagement ring while her fiancé, Todd Taggis, projected on four surrounding screens, circles her like a slobbering jackal waiting for the kill.

Are Betsy’s fingers crossed to ward off bad luck, or is she still a child who’s hoping she won’t get caught in a lie?

McKenna Kerrigan, who plays Betsy as well as Wesley (one of the bachelor revelers), looks like a young Meryl Streep with rock-hard calf muscles. Kerrigan’s Betsy is an all-American sensualist taking the leap into serious adulthood.

Betsy is eager to claim her reward — the handsome Taggis (Aaron Mumaw) — and doesn’t really want a party. Her friends won’t hear of it. After all, these parties are really consolation prizes for those who remain uncoupled. The girls (some of whom are played by men) giggle about condom corsages and inane icebreaking games like those you’d find at Spencer’s Gifts. The bachelorettes drop down a chute in the stage in a mind-blowing display of acrobatics by leaping into the air, floating down almost effortlessly below the stage and landing without a thud.

The play then switches focus to the men. They all raise their glasses to Taggis, shouting repeatedly, “To Taggis, tits and all!” — a sort of macho in-joke — before hurling the empties into the chute where the ladies disappeared earlier.

The men are as butch as the women are femme. Perhaps they are two sides of the same coin, and this marriage is one between those two aspects of one’s soul. The play’s mythical Myclops, a woman with one breast that looks like an eye, says at the wedding, “Your greater perfection will love and will service the whole of creation.”

Not to be missed are the bleating “saynads” — satyr-like creatures dressed in boxing helmets with goats’ horns attached, boxing gloves and furry chaps.
Like Louisville’s Le Petomane Theatre Ensemble, artistes of the New Paradise Laboratories have worked together for years and are learned in commedia dell’arte. (Three of the actors studied with Antonio Fava, the Italian master of this form of improvisational theater.) This performance highlights the value of working as an ensemble where trust is a must when swinging fellow actors into the proverbial air.

Some audience members were “lost” as I heard one say on opening night. Just remember, this is a spectacle. There’s no linear plot. It’s pure performance art, and lots of fun.