'The Mood Room' review: 1980s anomie, California style

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'The Mood Room' review: 1980s anomie, California style
In an undated image provided by Julieta Cervantes, Michelle Sui and Kate Moran in Annie-B Parson’s “The Mood Room.” In Big Dance Theater’s new work, premiering at BAM Fisher, Annie-B Parson melds her sensibility with that of the Conceptual artist Guy de Cointet. Julieta Cervantes via The New York Times.

by Brian Seibert

NEW YORK, NY.- The first thing we learn about the five sisters gathering in their childhood home in Annie-B Parson’s “The Mood Room” is that it has been a year since their parents died. One of the sisters tells us that. They all talk a lot, though very little about grief.

Something is clearly wrong. The sisters are anxious and depressed. They cannot always tell one another apart; their own identities are not stable. One sister has become allergic to the sun. The water is not clean. They have many ideas about how to fix the problems: doctors and diets, new lighting and other purchases and changes of scene, vacations to exotic locales or just a retreat to the room of the title.

Even without a program note, you might guess from the sisters’ speech and from the interior décor that we are in the early 1980s — a 1980s that has not ended. The production, which Big Dance Theater debuted at BAM Fisher Tuesday, takes its text from “Five Sisters,” a 1982 work by conceptual artist Guy de Cointet. Born and raised in France, he lived in Los Angeles and captured the self-absorption of some of the city’s inhabitants with a mixture of amusement and alarm.

In a program note, Parson calls de Cointet “an artistic soul mate,” and it is remarkable how much his text seems to call for her customary approach. Roaming an elegantly tacky interior of fringe curtains and beige carpeting (kudos to designer Lauren Machen), the sisters emphasize the artificiality of their speech, drawn from commercials and soap operas and bits of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” all treated equally. Often before underlining a word, they pause and pose.

That pausing and posing is pure Parson. The sisters dance a lot here, sometimes in girl-group formation, step-touching as a disco ball revolves. But every second of the show is tightly choreographed, tightly controlled, down to how they hold their water glasses and dangle their feet. The anxious mood derives from this exertion of control, especially as the sisters react to and remark upon shifts in light and sound.

The addition of music by experimental laptop artist Holly Herndon is an inspired choice. Full of vintage noises, it is like a spliced memory reel of the era, echoing Laurie Anderson without sampling or recognizable quotation. The sisters keep characterizing it differently (“what odd music,” “what thoughtful music”) and yet accurately.

The cast is also expert: Kate Moran as the sister with the sun allergy, Elizabeth DeMent as the sleepy-eyed workaholic, Myssi Robinson as the clean-lined dancer with hearing and hip problems, Michelle Sui as the painter. Theda Hammel, appearing briefly without the other sisters, introduces a welcome, looser humor — at once the most Chekhovian and contemporary, dishing about a guy she has met, rearranging household objects before saying, “That’s how I remember it.”

That earns a laugh, but otherwise, humor is thinly spread. Across an hour, sisters accumulate and one finally leaves, but nobody really changes. Which is the point, a static point perhaps more suited to museums and art galleries than a theater. The program note cites “the enduring damage of the Reagan era” and consumerism consuming civic engagement, but the production doesn’t carry that much political weight. Yes, such people as these sisters exist, in Los Angeles and in all of us. The question is: Are you in the mood to spend time with them?

'The Mood Room'

Through Sunday at BAM Fisher, Brooklyn; bam.org

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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