Company XIV has been forging genre-smashing, gender-busting dance-theater productions for quite a few years now. Founder and choreographer Austin McCormick‘s “baroque burlesque” extravaganzas are kaleidoscopic fusions of ballet, circus, drama, athleticism, and camp. The sizzling new Queen of Hearts, inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is the first show I’ve seen in Théâtre XIV, the company’s new Bushwick digs. And in some ways it’s the best yet.
This impossibly gaudy custom-designed space makes a Company XIV show feel, even for a long-time follower, like the first time. There’s a normal proscenium stage, in fact not even a very big one. McCormick’s spangly, turbocharged aesthetic feels as hyper-energized as ever. But the nightclub design makes the performances much more immersive than they felt at the troupe’s old converted garage in Gowanus, or Off-Broadway at the more traditional Minetta Lane Theatre.
That busy immersiveness helps makes Queen of Hearts the company’s most thrilling production I’ve had the opportunity to see. Another boost is the incorporation of more live singing, set to dance beats and tunes dating from the 17th to the 21st centuries.
One dance begins at the bar on the side, in a giant cup, then moves to a pole on stage. Another takes place in a butterfly. In the “Caterpillar” segment a worm-shaped package wrapped in black is carried on stage, then unwrapped to reveal a dancer in a gorgeous blue dress. All along, audience members find themselves part of the action, showered with shiny confetti and targeted with chocolates, sung to close-up, lit up with glamour at every turn.
Tweedledee and Tweedledum rustle up honest-to-goodness hilarity. There’s a bottle dance like you’ve never seen, an exaggerated can-can, and inventive choreography at nearly every turn. The “Cheshire Cats” sequence of dances includes a more-or-less traditional pas de deux even as it fuses the human and the feline with easy naturalism and a sense of fun. (See, by contrast, Jennifer Hudson and Judi Dench in the current trailer for the seemingly misbegotten Cats movie.)
Throughout, the musical selections, whether out of the box or crafted for the show, delight in joyful (or joyfully perverse) ways. Always fabulous, they’re also always fundamentally good-natured. Well, almost always. The one sour note is an explicitly anti-Trump song. It plays pretty well with the audience (this is Brooklyn after all) but in departing from the Alice-fantasy theme, it thrusts us jarringly into the nightmare of political reality. Great entertainment like this makes its statements through the artistic worlds it creates; it doesn’t need jeremiads.
Company XIV shows are ensemble pieces. They feel like happenings, not star vehicles, and all the more so when the audience feels like part of the scene, as in the new digs. Still, it seems right to call out a few of the numerous spectacular turns in Queen of Hearts. Just as in the original Lewis Carroll story, Alice, here darkly embodied by the sultry LEXXE (returning from Company XIV’s Nutcracker Rouge), is ushered through a raunchy, glittery world of psychedelia and eroticism by a sequence of mad players. Force of nature Michael Cunio is as strong and adept at raw rock as at legit singing; under White Rabbit ears or not, he stalks and dominates the theater like a bolt of lightning. Storm Marrero appears like a blast of dangerous sunshine late in the show in the title role, triumphant soulfulness emanating from a powerful stillness. The amazing Marcy Richardson, also a veteran of Nutcracker Rouge, can do everything from sing opera to pole dance. Here she literally tops it all by dancing in, and dangling from, a large crown hung from the ceiling – while singing in full voice.
I’ve followed Company XIV for quite a few years. Queen of Hearts, as presented at their own Théâtre XIV, is the most all-encompassing show I’ve seen from the troupe. Mesmerizing on every level, it boasts exceptional singing, delightful costumes and stage effects, and Austin McCormick’s ever-inventive choreographic and musical vision, brought to effervescent life by an outstanding company of multi-talented performers. It runs through August 18, 2019. Visit the Company XIV website for schedule and tickets or call OvationTix at 866-811-4111.