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theater et al leaves Manhattan for Queens digs Off-Off Broadway group shifts gears to take over Long Island City confectioner’s space

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The critically acclaimed experimental theater company, formerly based in Manhattan, makes its outer borough debut with “Audit,” an original performance...

By Eileen Morrison Darren

With the arrival of theater et al, a new era for the performing arts in Queens breaks from the gate.

The critically acclaimed experimental theater company, formerly based in Manhattan, makes its outer borough debut with “Audit,” an original performance piece, at The Chocolate Factory, the new 14,000-square-foot visual and performing arts space it shares with the Repetti Place for Artists in Long Island City.

The Chocolate Factory is housed in the former digs of the Dryden & Palmer Confectionery Co. on the fourth floor of the Repetti building, a vast old factory on 23rd Street that is a relic from Long Island City’s heyday as the greatest industrial center in the United States.

During the 1990s, the abundance of light and space and stunning views of the Manhattan skyline have made these old factories the destination for legions of visual artists migrating across the East River in search of affordable studio and living space. Actors, dancers and musicians have lived in the northwestern Queens neighborhoods of Astoria, Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, and Long Island City for years. With this venture, venues that present their work to the public, a theater and gallery, have opened in their midst.

As night falls over the beautiful city across the river, its sparkling lights come up in the windows of theater et al’s 2,200 square feet of space on the west side of the building, while every few minutes throughout the day, the No. 7 train rattles by just below the fourth floor windows of the Repetti Place for Artists’ Gallery on the other side of the building.

Theater et al’s Artistic Director Brian Rogers, explaining how the arts groups came together, said “Sam Farnsworth, a visual artist, was the person who found the floor and made a deal with the landlord to transform it into an arts space. He wanted to open a complex of gallery and artist studio spaces.

“Before the floor was renovated, Sam and I got together and hatched a plan to make a multi-arts center out of the place,” Rogers added. “Sam curates gallery events and manages our artist studio spaces. I curate performance events and manage the performance space.”

Founded in 1997 by Bennington alumni and Long Island City residents Brian Rogers, 31, and Sheila Lewandowski, 40, theater et al has made a name for itself with strikingly innovative expressionistic productions. It was the resident theater company of the Mazer Theater on the Lower East Side of Manhattan from 1997 to 1999; during the period from 1999 to 2002, before taking up residence at the Chocolate Factory, it maintained a full-time rehearsal studio in Midtown and performed at rented theaters and in venues associated with The American Living Room Festival and the world-famous Fringe Festival, such as The Paradise Theater, the studio at St. Marks, the HERE Arts Center, and the studio at New York Performance Works.

Rogers serves as the director for all of the company’s productions. Beginning with “One in the Oven” during the company’s maiden season in 1997, and his adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” in 2001, Rogers has moved the company inexorably away from the redux of other people’s plays toward the creation of original performance pieces. In 2001, Rogers collaborated with Ryan K. Vemmer on “Notes/Dire­ctions,” performed at The American Living Room Festival at HERE Arts Center in SoHo which, as it turns out, was the first step in a new direction for Rogers and his company.

For the first five years of its existence, theater et al’s critically acclaimed productions focused on translations and adaptations of existing plays by some of Europe’s most important early 20th Century playwrights, with a decided bias toward lesser known expressionistic works. Theater et al’s productions during this time included Karel Capek’s “R.U.R. - Rossum’s Universal Robots” (1998); “Secrets of the Yellow Room”; a pairing of two short Strindberg plays “The Stronger” and “Paria,” for which Eric Coleman won a Fringe Excellence in Performance award (1999); Michel de Ghelderodes’ “Chronicles of Hell”; and Arthur Schnitzler's “Life’s Call” (2001).

And theater et al has not hesitated to delve into its arsenal of technology to apply multimedia expressionistic fireworks to other works like Gorky’s “The Zykovs” (2000), and an adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” entitled “The (Lowlife) Cherry Orchard” (2001).

Expressionism in drama refers to a technique in which no attempt is made to make the play or the setting realistic. The emphasis is on the internal subjective feelings of the characters. When done well, the result is intense emotional impact followed by cognitive aftershocks.

In 2002, the company embarked on a new path, producing “FUNDAMENTAL,” a new original work, written by Rogers and Vemmer. The piece was created by the company, and the group brought all of its substantial technological expertise to new material using the stuff of contemporary American life, pop culture, and politics, as spewed from our trusty sources of information and entertainment — the radio and television.

“FUNDAMENTAL” moved away from the company’s involvement in productions of “retro” texts and strode resolutely into the 21st Century, leaving the adaptations behind in favor of original new works, conceived, written and directed by members of the theater company.

According to Rogers, “We had been adapting existing plays. I began to think that we may not have been true to the original plays, or to the playwrights’ intentions, that we may have been using the works for our own purposes, and possibly not doing either the plays or the playwrights a service.”

What remains the same, however, is the group’s stunningly effective use of aural and visual elements and a multi-arts approach to the production of theater which includes ballet and modern dance movement, art installation-style scenery, and computers to generate a mother lode of sensory stimuli.

For a generation of young people who’ve grown up watching television, playing gameboy, and listening to music on headsets, all while surfing the Internet, this is theater that will satisfy.

It won’t be long ‘til the denizens of theater make the trek from Manhattan to see what theater et al is up to.

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