The word Outré is defined as “out of the common course or limits; extravagant; (2) bizarre; outlandish”; unfortunately the new solo show at Ars Nova, Outré Island, is not quite that far gone. At least, not yet! The workshop production, written and performed by Christoper Rozzi,is presented as a sort of meeting of the cultures between our country and Outré Island, an heretofore unknown society located a thousand or so miles away. The citizens of Outré only became aware of the “outside world” when an autographed headshot of Don Cheadle happened to wash ashore. Now, the idea is to build a tunnel between the island and New York (shaped like an umbilical cord), and so the audience is presented with a select group of island dwellers, representatives intended to bridge the gap betwixt our two cultures. And so you have the overall framework of the show.
Rozzi is an adept performer, the six characters he plays, from the mayor to a precocious child named Delmonte, to Robin Merry, a children’s book author with a mountain man beard, are well-crafted. Though Rozzi may best be known for his version of William Shakespeare, popular on YouTube and which he reprises here. (It is the most honed and precise.)
The central conceit of the show, however, feels grafted on, and aside from a few cultural quirks the audience gleans about Outré Island,mostly from interstitial video segments — there are jail parks, and the annual hunt for the mayor, and a mysterious, naturally-produced blue substance (It’s a fuel source! It’s an ingestible stimulant!) — there didn’t seem to be a reason to create a locale out of whole cloth, when it could have just as easily been set in a fictional US town, albeit one where the inhabitants are just as quirky and deluded. The sum of the characterizations does not equal the thematic whole in this case. (Also, isn’t it terribly convenient that the Outré Islanders happen to speak English, and dress in jeans and sweaters, and have access to video equipment?)
The talented Raja Azar (of the pirate musical Jollyship the Whiz-Bang) is underserved here in his role as musical director, left to fend for himself corner of the theater, his character all hopped up on blue substance. It felt too much like he was merely stalling when waiting for Rozzi to effect a costume change, and Azar seemed vaguely relieved, as did the audience, when Rozzi returned to the stage. Though the two did have an easy rapport.
There is also, be warned for those of you that hate to be called upon to interact during the show, a fair amount of crowd work, which on the plus side opens up the piece to spontaneity and improvisation, but also leaves the onus on the audience to drive certain segments.
Watching the show I was reminded of something: Were you ever, in elementary or middle school, in either a social studies or history class, presented with the tale of the Nacirema and their “exotic” customs, which after a thorough examination the whole “whoa” at the end of the exercise was that you realized Nacirema is American spelled backwards, and you’ve been examining your own culture from the outside in? This show has the potential to go in that direction. Or, alternately, if instead of bringing Outré Island to the audience, the performance brought the audience to that locale, letting the mores and customs unfold in their own setting, like a living travelogue. With his residency at Ars Nova, Rozzi has been continually developing this work, so this show may yet yield different results by the end of the collaboration. As it stands now it is a fine showcase for Rozzi as a writer/performer, but not a cohesive product. If he indeed keeps tweaking the show, and a stronger narrative emerges, he may yet tie these broad characters into something larger, a piece that is both familiar and, as the title implies, outré.