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Big Dance Theater brings comic ‘Smithee’ to Jacob’s Pillow

Chris Giarmo and Elizabeth DeMent in “Alan Smithee Directed This Play: Triple Feature.”Christopher Duggan

BECKET — Inventive and witty, entertaining and silly, “Alan Smithee Directed This Play: Triple Feature,” performed by Big Dance Theater this week at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, takes its cues from the tearjerker film “Terms of Endearment,” the noirish French crime thriller “Le Cercle Rouge,” and the epic romance “Doctor Zhivago.” If you’re wondering what on earth they have in common, one of the kicks of this 2014 production is the way they are mushed together; their lack of obvious commonality is the point, and a big part of the fun.

And no, Alan Smithee did not direct the piece, but Big Dance Theater co-directors Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson did. (Alan Smithee is a film trade term, a pseudonym whose appearance in film credits often indicates that the real director didn’t have the desired artistic license in the final product.) The seeming incongruity of various source materials provides the creative jumping-off point for this team, a challenge from which they concoct their smart, often madcap movement theater.


The deconstruction and scattering of text from “Zhivago” and “Endearment,” and the multi-casting of characters from all three, is initially disorienting; the whiplash randomness throws us off the scent of the familiar but also trains us to focus in on what’s being said, what’s perhaps really happening.

Lazar and the six other excellent performers (Tymberle Canale, Elizabeth DeMent, Chris Giarmo, Cynthia Hopkins, Aaron Mattocks, Kourtney Rutherford) scatter about the stage, moving banal props — tables, old-school telephones, plastic folding chairs — and taking off and putting on costume pieces, creating myriad mini-scenes. Costume designer Oana Botez’s gauzy, flower-imprinted dresses conjure Aurora, matriarch of “Endearment,” while fur coats and hats place everyone in the endless Russian winter of “Zhivago.” Film excerpts from “Cercle” are projected onto scenic designer Joanne Howard’s one permanent set piece, a big rectangle whose frame creates a letterbox-like window, while its white vertical slats can be closed to form a temporary screen or opened to create a doorway.


The jigsaw pieces begin to cohere, the longer we wander without a map. Parson’s movement for the performers is highly stylized, consisting largely of simple sequences of walks, lunges, and pivots, sometimes accented with mime-like gestures of the hands. It’s usually executed at a stately pace, providing “background” without disrupting the main action; sometimes the effect is like slow motion in a film: A protracted swoon catches the eye while catching the viewer up in its dreaminess.

Likewise, line readings and “reenactments” are purposely stilted or über-dramatized. While a tense scene from “Cercle” plays out on the screen, two live performers maintain their stances but shuffle toward stage left, their cartoon wiggle a comic mirroring of the film’s panning camera. When waltzing couples are interrupted by a gun-toting “Lara,” they run back and forth from her to “Victor,” pausing for belated mock-gasps: They’re shocked! Shocked!

The exaggerations are parodic, yes, but while “Triple Feature” is quite funny, it isn’t cynical. The underlying sadness in these films, and the struggle to rise above it, are ever-present. Regular people do, in fact, have messy and loud fights with family members, go to war, die of cancer in hospital beds, and — the balm to all that gives us a pretty good reason to keep going — fall passionately in love. Which doesn’t mean, thankfully, that this is some kind of somber cautionary tale, or meant to tug mawkishly at our heartstrings. But all play and no poetry is only skin-deep. Fortunately, there’s a big heart pulsing deep within “Triple Feature.”



At: Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, through Sunday. Tickets: $25-$35.


Janine Parker can be reached at