Swimming To Spalding

Off-Off-Broadway, Performance Art / One-Woman Show

Location: HERE Arts Center

BOTTOM LINE: An engaging story told by a captivating performer. Next vacation: Thailand.

I am admitedly not a Spalding Gray scholar, but I can tell you that he was a performance artist, writer and actor who was a staple in New York's downtown theatre scene in the 1970s and really up until his death in 2004. He was into performing monologues about his life, and he would employ a mostly bare set and his own storytelling abilities and sense of humor to captivate his audience. His unique performance approach and his mesmerizing topics procured an immense following of loyal fans over the years. Fast forward a few years to a new story being performed in downtown Manhattan in an equally minimalistic and equally enthralling way: Lian Amaris' solo show, Swimming To Spalding.

Amaris' tale is a tribute to Gray and she is reverent as she describes her own trip to Thailand to discover what Spalding himself encountered when he traveled there himself during the filmng of the early '80s movie, The Killing Fields (his experiences were subsequently conveyed in his own play Swimming To Cambodia.) She and director Richard Schnechner (a frequent collaborator with Gray) take the audience on the journey with illustrative descriptions that are both magnetic in the moment and nearly transport the audience to Thailand themselves. Amaris speaks directly to the audience and invites them in; her offer is enticing and hard to resist since she is incredibly intriguing to watch.

Although she embodies several characters along the way, the performance itself is more on the storytelling side of the one-person-show genre, more about the words and the characters than about the presentational value. Mixed with some creative nuances in the direction and use of props, Amaris evokes Gray's own performance sensibilities. Swimming To Spalding is an interesting theatrical experience because it is non-traditional in a very comfortable way. It's not really performance art because it's not unapproachable or weird; it's not a standard one-woman-show because the performance, although precise and defined, almost comes second to the story itself; it's not a recitation of a monologue because it's much more active than that. It's unique in its performance value and as a result, it's great fun to watch.

Swimming To Spalding isn't for everyone. It's theatre with an independent, downtown, non-traditional feel (much like Gray's work himself). It's for audiences with a penchant toward interpretive performance, but it's certainly not unapproachable. This is obviously a great show for any fans of Gray's work as well. Amaris pays tribute to Gray and proves her own performance abilities at the same time. She's a killer storyteller; it's a treat to hear her tale.

(Swimming To Spalding plays at HERE Arts Center through December 20th. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 8:30pm, Friday at 8:30pm and 10:30pm, Saturday at 4pm and 8:30pm and Sunday at 4pm. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased by calling 212-352-3101 or visiting 2-for-1 student rush tickets are available at the box office 30 minutes before performance.)