We tend to think about words as the building blocks of theater, but sometimes a show comes along to remind us that an actor's physical presence can be enough to hold our attention. Indeed, Ramesh Meyyappan never says a word in his Theatre Project solo show, an adaptation of Dario Fo's Mistero Buffo.
A Nobel Prize-winning Italian writer and performer known for his comic explorations of existential and political themes, Fo relies on spoken language that combines real words with nonsensical sounds. Equally important are pantomimed gestures derived from clowning traditions extending back to medieval strolling players.
Whether done by Fo or others, Mistero Buffo (Comical Mystery) often changes somewhat from one performance to the next. That makes it intriguing to see how Meyyappan, who is deaf, brings off his totally wordless version. On a promising biographical note, Meyyappan's ethnic origins in Singapore and education in Britain position him well to communicate with anybody.
He is first seen in Mistero Buffo within a circle of light. His body is pulled into itself and then gradually starts to reach out and explore the stage space around it. Although the 50 minutes that follow don't adhere to a conventional narrative structure, the freely flowing pantomimed episodes often allude to the gestures of daily life.
The silent performer's only prop is a chair, and even that is quickly used and then pushed off the stage. Although he generally eschews props, the accompanying recorded soundtrack supplies eclectic musical moods for every occasion.
One recurring bit of movement is a sweeping motion associated with work-related activity. Other repeated moves mimic the eating, drinking and smoking that fill our time between working. Meyyappan's evocation of mundane activity sometimes involves audience interaction, as when he walks up to the front row, indicates he's hungry and is rewarded by an audience member tossing candy. If most performers sing for their supper, this guy pantomimes for his meal.
Besides emphasizing our basic physical needs and habits, Mistero Buffo brings out Fo's satiric treatment of his Roman Catholic heritage. There's even a scene with Christ on the cross.
It can be frustrating to watch Meyyappan's adaptation of Fo's play, because it's not always clear what he's evoking in these skits. What makes him worth watching, however, is this thin performer's angular grace. Thematic meaning remains even more elusive than what's presumably intended, but an arm slicing through the air announces the presence of a human being looking for his place in society.
In addition to Mistero Buffo, the Theatre Project is also staging Swept Away, a 25-minute curtain raiser conceived by performer Iosif Schneiderman and his director, Tim Chamberlain.
The Russian-born Schneiderman is also a deaf performer, but he occasionally speaks in a gruff voice that seems appropriate for his pudgy physique and pushy interaction with the audience.
"Stand up!" Schneiderman barked at me as he took a broom and swept the floor around me. These sweeping motions provide at least a lightly brushed thematic connection with Meyyappan, but they're otherwise completely distinct performers.
Swept Away has fun with the notion that a brusque everyman has been ordered to sweep the theater clean; and there's an enjoyably melodramatic confrontation between the sweeper and a verbally aggressive backstage crew member (Andrew Peters).
It's also amusing to see how the lowly sweeper treats the broom as an elegant dance partner, transforms a hanging coat into an invisible second person simply by slipping his arm through a sleeve, and plays with the circles of light produced by a flashlight. Unfortunately, the sweeping portion goes on too long and makes you want to get out a vacuum cleaner and finish the job for him.