Angst and acrobatics: Morris Museum presents ‘xoxo moongirl,’ an experimental ‘circus fantasia’

xoxo moongirl review

PHOTOS BY JACK GRASSA

Nicole Burgio in “xoxo moongirl.”

The scattered live-entertainment options that have sprung up during the pandemic have tended to be a bit predictable. Venues offering live music have booked a lot of cover bands; drive-in movie proprietors favor blockbusters of years past. It is not a cultural climate in which you are likely to have many chances to see experimental theater.

Yet that opportunity has come up this week, as the Morris Museum in Morris Township is presenting “xoxo moongirl,” described in promotional material as “an autobiographical circus fantasia,” on its outdoor stage. I saw the Sept. 24 show. There is another one, Sept. 25 at 7 p.m.; visit morrismuseum.org/outdoor-events for information.

Produced by Almanac Dance Circus Theatre, “xoxo moongirl” is basically a one-woman show, featuring Nicole Burgio, though it is enhanced by live musical accompaniment by Mel Hsu on cello, vocals and other instruments. It is mainly about Burgio’s relationship with her family, including her eccentric mother, whom Burgio clearly adores, and her distant, abusive father.

Burgio and director Ben Grinberg mix the earthy with the abstract. Burgio is appealingly unaffected — disarmingly honest, and often very funny — as she talks about her family and other things, or interacts with audience members (there are two segments in which volunteers are asked to participate). But large portions of the evening are wordless, devoted to graceful dance routines and dazzling acrobatic segments in which Burgio acts out, physically, the deep emotional impact of the story she is telling. It’s up to audience members, pretty much, to connect the dots.

Nicole Burgio in “xoxo moongirl.”

The play starts with Burgio standing on a table, walking slowly backwards. When she gets close to the edge, she asks audience members to advise her if she should stop or keep inching backwards. They tell her to stop, and she looks down and seems disappointed that she didn’t keep going (even though there is just a tiny bit of space left).

There is a glass of milk there, at the edge. She says there are two kinds of people: Those who are worried about it falling, and those who aren’t. “Guess which kind I am?” she asks, pushing it over the edge and catching it as it begins to fall. She smiles, as if to let us know there was never anything to worry about.

It’s an obvious metaphor, but that’s basically Burgio’s artistic strategy, too, taking this evening to the edge of where theater usually goes and pushing it a little further, but also remaining firmly in control.

The production was originally scheduled to be presented at the museum’s Bickford Theatre in February 2021. Introducing it on Sept. 24, Brett Wellman Messenger, curatorial director of the museum’s Live Arts program, said that since it is far from certain that the museum will be presenting indoor shows by then, the decision was made to mount it now, outside.

Though the show does require a large structure for the aerial segments, Almanac figured out a way to do it outside at a less-than-prohibitive price, and the setting actually ended up being a plus. For some reason, aerial tricks seem more dangerous in the open air. And in the segment where Burgio fantasizes about traveling to the moon, you could look up and see the moon itself.

For more on the production, visit thealmanac.us/xoxomoongirl.

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