Musical ‘The Floatones’ Interweaves Stories of Four Aspiring Artists

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In Jim Neu’s musical “The Floatones,” four rather strange characters meet at their encounter group and decide the best way to get better is through show business. They form a vocal quartet on the cutting edge of a new fusion between entertainment and self-help. Their night club act shares their group insights in speech and song, interweaving their individual stories, creating a post-Chorus Line. “The Floatones” debuted in 1995 and will be revived by La MaMa E.T.C. on the play’s 20th anniversary, March 1 to 10, 2015 co-directed by Catherine Galasso and Keith McDermott. It is the first production of a Jim Neu play since his death in 2010.

Playwright Jim Neu (1943-2010) was a major voice in Downtown Theater who specialized in an elliptical take on language. His plays and musicals ride on a wry, cool humor that is intelligently zany. “The Floatones” stands out in his body of work for its unique abundance of bon mots and intellectual calisthenics. While the characters claim to be “coherency-neutral,” their observations about themselves and their world often make a strange sense (“I identified with people who didn’t remember me,” “I’ve never seen one thing lead to another so graphically before,” “Have you ever seen a mob standing in line? Quite a sight. Losing control without losing your place.”). Their reality is in the crack between what you know and what you think you know. The pleasure is the logic of the word play that supports this, as when the foursome sings:

We’re past reason

We’re post plot

We’re coherency neutral

We mean it not

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LR: Greg Zuccolo, Larissa Velez-Jackson, Joshua William Gelb, Jess Barbagallo. Photo by Victoria Sendra.

Claiming to be “motivation-free,” the characters are obsessed with identity, personal positioning and post-communication, uttering such confessions as “I’ve pursued my career with a monomentality, and it was beginning to show” and “I’ve been on a role, but in the wrong direction.” They reassure each other with such mottos as “relaxity works,” “You’re only as good as you make yourself sound” and “every moment is always what’s left of the rest of your future.” The creative challenge in Neu’s musicals was to adapt such mind-twisters to song lyrics.

The original production was directed by Rocky Bornstein (of Otrabanda Company) and was performed by Bill Rice, Mary Shultz, Keith McDermott and Jim Neu. When it debuted, it was Neu’s second musical and the successor to his first tuner, “Dark Pocket,” which had been presented by The Club at La MaMa in 1994 to approving reviews. The Native (L.C. Cole) wrote, “It was minimalist writing and acting at one of the best performance levels around….This was controlled chaos, manipulated madness, intellectual idiocy, from which a lot of deconstruction-minded performers and writers could well learn….The fun of course was entirely in the stylish ride and the ideas it took us by.” “The Floatones” received no reviews, but the show fortified Neu’s brand among a growing cadre of Neu-philes. It also brought Keith McDermott into the cadre of Neu-performers when he replaced John Nesci in the cast. McDermott had met Neu in Robert Wilson’s company and went on to direct all nine of Neu’s subsequent plays.

This revival is an inter-generational project for directors Keith McDermott and Catherine Galasso. The pair originally teamed up to mount scenes from Neu plays for the YANS RETO Performance art festival at Anthology Film Archives. That fest’s name is an acronym for “Young And Not Stupid, Radical Even Though Old.” It pairs up artists who are under 30 and over 60; McDermott was the elder and Galasso the younger. She is the daughter of composer Michael Galasso and dancer Liz Pasquale, who were original members of Robert Wilson’s School of Byrds with Neu. Michael Galasso had scored Neu’s play “Echo Ranch” in 1979. Reviving “The Floatones” provided a way for Catherine to feel close to her father by connecting with his creative community.

This is the first time a Jim Neu play has been performed by a company of performers who have dance chops. The performers are Jess Barbagallo, Joshua William, Gelb Larissa Velez-Jackson and Greg Zuccolo. Each of them is uniquely distinguished in the NY experimental worlds of dance and theater. Choreography by Galasso will replace dances by Rocky Bornstein in the original production. The 1995 production had melodies by Harry Mann and Neal Kirkwood. In this revival, the ensemble is writing its own music and putting even more songs in, which are described as “appropriated from Doo-Wop.”

Jim Neu wrote over 25 plays and was an important figure in Downtown New York theater from the late 1970s until his death in 2010. In works ranging from monologues and one-act dialogues to full-length plays and dance/text collaborations with major choreographers, his style and sound are instantly recognizable. Neu’s humor was subtle and his touch was light; his own underplaying once reminded a critic of Groucho Marx on medication. His plays often depicted identity crises in cowboys, spies and media-smitten urban professionals. He began a long relationship with Ellen Stewart and La MaMa in 1991 and most of his subsequent work originated there. His last play, “Gang of Seven” (2008), was his tenth play at La MaMa. His plays were also presented at Dixon Place, PS122, Danspace Project, Soho Rep and Westbeth Theater Center. His archives, including hand-written manuscripts, are preserved in the Fales Library at NYU. He married the noted lighting designer Carol Mullins in 1998; she had been his partner for 40 years at the time of his death. Biographical info and a chronology of his works are found in his website, www.jimneu.com.

Catherine Galasso is a choreographer and media artist based in Brooklyn. Her works have been performed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Bibliotheque National de France in Paris, Harvard University’s Carpenter Center, the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara, Joyce SoHo, Danspace Project, Movement Research at the Judson Church, Dixon Place, BAX, Dance New Amsterdam and the International Theater Festival in Pristina, Kosovo. While based in San Francisco from 2006-09, Galasso was offered a three-year residency at ODC Theater by then artistic director Rob Bailis. During her time at ODC, she was the first choreographer to be commissioned by the San Francisco Film Society (2009), and the youngest commissioned by the San Francisco Foundation (2011). She is a participant in Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Extended Life Dance Development program made possible in part by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Keith McDermott began his professional career at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut. On Broadway, he starred opposite Richard Burton in Equus, played Harold in “Harold and Maude” and Tom in the Christopher Isherwood play “Meeting by the River.” He has acted at many Off Broadway theaters, including Playwrights Horizons, Manhattan Theatre Club and The Roundabout. He has worked in New York, Europe, Russia and Japan with the avant garde director Robert Wilson. For fifteen years, he directed the plays of Jim Neu, most of them at La MaMa. Mr. McDermott is also a writer. His novel, “Acqua Calda,” was shortlisted for a Lambda Award and a Gay & Lesbian National Book Award. An article on his “Equus” experience, “The Boy In Burton’s Shadow,” has been optioned for film.

The Cast

Jess Barbagallo has collaborated with Big Dance Theater, Julia May Jonas/Nellie Tinder, Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf, The Builders Association, Hoi Polloi, The Drunkard’s Wife, Casey Llewellyn, Katherine Brook/Tele-Violet and Andrea Geyer. Barbagallo is a founding member of Half Straddle, Red Terror Squad, and the Dyke Division of 2HC. Other credits include Man in a Case(Annie-B Parson/Paul Lazar/Mikhail Baryshnikov), House of Dance(Tina Satter/NYC Players), Fiabe Italiane (John Turturro), An Oresteia (Paul Lazar/Brian Kulick), and MilkMilkLemonade(Josh Conkel). Barbagallo has been a guest artist/teacher at Brown, Princeton and New York University, is a 2014 New York Live Arts Context Notes Writer-in-Residence, and currently curates for the Little Theater performance series at Dixon Place. MFA: Brooklyn College.

Joshua William Gelb is a New York based performer, director, and librettist. He has performed with Little Lord, Tele-Violet, Moe Yousuf & Allison Lyman, Designated Movement, Prelude, Other Forces, Incubator Arts, Dixon Place, Ars Nova, and in several Target Margin Labs. (www.joshuawilliamgelb.com)

Larissa Velez-Jackson is a Brooklyn-based choreographer and multimedia artist. She has presented work at Roulette, New Museum of Contemporary Art, DTW, Danspace, Abrons Arts Center and Chocolate Factory Theater. In 2011, she launched a song-and-dance collaboration with her husband, Jon Velez-Jackson, called Yackez, “The World’s Most Loveable Hip Hop Duo.” She was a Movement Research Artist in Residence ’12-’13, a SPARC resident ’13 with the LMCC and most recently an El Museo Del Barrio Artist in Residence ’14. (www.larissavelez.com)

Greg Zuccolo trained with Royal Winnipeg Ballet and danced with the company before moving to Belgium to appear with Les Operettes Royale de Wallonie. In NYC, he has danced with Stanley Love, Tere O’Connor, John Jasperse and Sarah Michelson and won a Bessie Award. In Europe, he has also appeared with Baryshnikov’s White Oak, Michael Laub and Remote Control Productions. He has performed in films by Ilya Chaiken, Matthew Barney and Nicholas Elliot and plays by Tina Satter and Sibyl Kempson. His own writings include the dance-theater works “Calvin Klein by Greg Zuccolo” with Hilary Clark, “Busy Nights” and “Too Much Too Soon.”

La MaMa ETC will present “The Floatones,” May 1 to 10, 2015 at La MaMa E.T.C. (The Club), 74A East Fourth Street. Performances are Fridays and Saturday at 10:00 PM, Sundays at 6:00 PM Tickets are $18 gen. Adm. and $13 seniors and students. Ten $10 tickets will be available to every performance on a first-come, first-served basis. The box office number is (646) 430-5374 and tickets can be purchased online at: www.lamama.org. The show’s website is:www.jimneu.com

Jonathan Slaff is a New York publicist in the specialty of international cultural events. Jonathan and his writers keep us ahead of the curve in the world of the arts and culture.