The Chocolate Factory, a scrappy yet resourceful, forward-thinking venue that puts the Queens' Long Island City neighborhood on New York’s performing arts map, closes its fall season this year with the work titled – hold on tight – Screening Room, or, The Return of Andrea Kleine (as revealed through a re-enactment of a 1977 television show about a ‘long and baffling’ film by Yvonne Rainer). While an overextended title has the tendency to strike me as a pretentious overkill, in Kleine’s case it is very much warranted: in fact, the convoluted label of her piece encapsulates its multilayered structure. While certainly not long (at least not excessively so), Screening Room is indeed baffling more often than not, but in an endearing way – it entices one to remain curious and engaged in the process of resolving the puzzle created by the onstage proceedings.

© The Chocolate Factory Theater
© The Chocolate Factory Theater

Another curious aspect of this work is that it provides a steady stream of subverted expectations. The piece begins, as the title suggests, with an extremely simple set-up suggestive of a television talk show, with no more than a low table around which three performers are seated, on an otherwise empty stage. This section, which is also the evening’s longest, sets the piece on a deceptively simple trajectory: one very quickly realizes that the conversation between the acting threesome is meant to be a recreation of an American talkshow, in which a somewhat reluctant host discusses Kristina Talking Pictures, an avantgarde film made by the iconic choreographer-turned-filmmaker Yvonne Rainer, with the author herself flanked by an art critic, while the text of the interview is transmitted to the actors through long-wired headsets.

Kleine – who impersonates Rainer in the first scene – knows that she can afford to tease her audience for a long while before proceeding to break the rules she sets in the beginning. And indeed, after the extended sitcom re-enactment, she continues to shift idioms in a fairly rapid succession: while resorting to extremely simple means, the results are continuously surprising and sometimes a bit magical: at moments, the talking scenes are interrupted by outbursts of dancing; at other times, one may experience a person morphing into a circus animal stepping onto the table; or circus-like music emanating from the lower floor. At some point, the madness is interrupted, and the entire cast sits around the table and carries out a believably spontaneous conversation, discussing what they know about Kleine’s disappearance from the stage (and from New York) over the past decade, until now. They talk about a separation, mental conditions, teaching engagements (was it on the West Coast? Or perhaps Berlin?), touching upon issues that seem deeply personal – if only they could be fully corroborated by factual evidence.

© The Chocolate Factory Theater
© The Chocolate Factory Theater

The truth, of course, most likely lies in some murky in-between place, and Kleine does her best throughout to keep the mystery suspended in the air, much like the stage fog that lingers in the air in the latter part of the piece. Each revealed bit is matched by another that is concealed, or willingly obfuscated, but the author succeeds in maintaining a dynamic tension between curiosity and frustration, which – much like a meticulously prepared meal – leaves one wanting (to know) more.