Review: "Afterparty: The Rothko Studio" Takes Audiences Inside the Artist's World--Literally

Afterparty: The Rothko Studio

Choreographed by Rachel Cohen; composed by Maria Dessena; adapted by Barry Rowell; story by S.M. Dale

Directed by Ralph Lewis

Presented by Peculiar Works Project at 222 Bowery, NYC

June 27-30, 2019

Isabella Schiller, Jason Howard, Nathan Keiller, Caiti Latimer, Glenn Feinstein, Catherine Porter. Photo credit: Peculiar Works Project
The raison d’être of Afterparty is the space where it’s staged: 222 Bowery. While it was built in the 1880s to house New York’s first YMCA, the building’s chief claim to fame is that artists like Mark Rothko, Fernand Léger, and the beat writer William S. Burroughs called it home. It was Burroughs who dubbed the building “The Bunker.” Rothko lived and worked in a studio on the 2nd floor in the 1950s, when cheap rent attracted a host of artists to Bowery lofts. The poet and artist John Giorno still lives and works there—The New York Times ran a sketch of him and his Bowery habitat back in 2015.

Now Rothko’s studio, which has been vacant for a decade, is going on the rental market along with other properties in the building. When the building’s space manager learned about the site-specific work of the creative group “Peculiar Works Project,” she invited director Ralph Lewis, along with producers Catherine Porter and Barry Rowell, to tour the vacant properties in the building. He says they immediately saw the potential for a unique performance, and the creative team at PWP took on the challenge to stage a show there before the space goes on the market in July.

Developed in just two months, Afterparty explores the rich history of The Bunker through interactive theater. Thoughtful lighting and set design bring the space to life, while the cast populates it with historic inhabitants like Michael Goldberg and Eva Hesse. The audience is ushered from room by room, each animated by performances. In one memorable segment, cast member Jenna Zhu gives a lively and compelling reading of a passage from William S. Burroughs’ “The Finger” in character as the author, crouched in a dark but dramatically lit stairwell as the audience files past.

Catherine Porter, Caiti Latimer, Nathan Keiller, Jason Howard,
Isabella Schiller, and Glenn Feinstein (clockwise).
Photo credit: Peculiar Works Project
Where the tight development schedule limits the show most is in its interactive aspect. While I was given the nametag of my favorite artist at the door (you’re asked to pick), I was never given a genuine invitation to participate in the proceedings, or a clear direction about who I was supposed to be in the world of the show. In one segment, the audience was ushered into the studio as the party kicks off, and the cast mingled with us, occasionally approaching and offering cocktail comments in character as artists and scenesters. If these were intended as conversation openers, they never succeeded, with cast and audience member pausing awkwardly together for a moment before the performer would mingle on. If I was meant to feel brought into the party, it didn’t work well—I felt like the awkward guest no one knows who can’t manage small talk. The denouement of the narrative is the heated debate at dinner over whether Rothko is selling out by taking the commission for the Seagram murals for the Four Seasons. Jason Howard and Catherine Porter give engaging performances as Rothko and his critic, but here too I felt like an outsider at a family quarrel: should I keep eating my quiche, or quietly excuse myself from the dinner table?

The three dancers—Toby Billowitz, Aidan Feldman, and Despina Sophia Stamos—offer standout performances, effectively generating an atmosphere that suspended everydayness and made me receptive to the time-traveling conceit of the show. The segment where they whirled about Ballet Mécanique-style to Mozart’s “Eine Klein Nachtmusik” as they served dinner was droll and even a little spellbinding. It seemed out of place in the piece until I looked it up afterwards and noticed that Ballet Mécanique was co-directed by Fernand Léger, one of 222 Bowery’s famous historic inhabitants. Afterparty will be most rewarding for those prepared to ferret out Easter eggs like that one—and for those interested in the period who want a dramatic tour of the historic space.

-Shiloh Whitney

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