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Review: Abstraction both the strength and weakness of 7 Stages’ daring “Fat Boy”

Teresa "Toogie" Barcelo as the masked goddess in "Fat Boy."
Teresa "Toogie" Barcelo as the masked goddess in "Fat Boy."

Greed and hunger, excess and deprivation, consumerism and inequality are all themes in Miami-based artist Teo Castellanos’ abstract dance and spoken-word piece “Fat Boy,” at 7 Stages Theatre through November 18.

There are no characters in the work, though Castellanos himself plays a sort of sinister, hunched, nearly demonic narrator with long, sharp nails. In poetic language, he describes a world out of balance, where hunger and overconsumption co-exist side by side. His antithesis is a silent, masked female goddess (Teresa “Toogie” Barcelo), who appears intermittently, moving with a deliciously odd sinuousness. Three male dancers in white complete the picture, performing hip-hop moves that seem connected to ancient cultures and primal rituals in the new context.

Castellanos has an amazing facility with tableaux. The Zen-like, stripped-down arrangements of bodies and stage elements are all smartly done, leading up to the hour-long show’s final, surprising haunting image. The segment with dancers holding large domed gongs that they strike intermittently with mallets is amazing for the weird, patterned aural landscape it creates.

The projected images of actual slums and children in poverty, however, seem too literal. They conflict with, and even detract from, the more spare visual world of the performed piece. Also, the movement itself never develops enough propulsive force — there’s something strangely static about the dance, even though it works in some cases. There’s a meditative, ritualistic atmosphere conveyed in the way the dancers slowly cross the stage to a pulsing reggae beat, but somehow the later hip-hop moves lack the bigness and kinetic energy they should have.

Castellano’s narrator is sometimes a little too scary. He addresses the audience directly, often getting very close, and enters and exits from different points: you always feel that he’s going to pick you from the crowd or pop up behind you. Yikes.

In the end, slow abstraction is both the strength and deficiency of “Fat Boy.” Its meditative openness to interpretation is wonderfully invitational, almost participatory, but somehow the piece never gathers into a cohesive, forceful whole. Still, those who like their theater on the challenging and avant-garde side will be well served: it’s the sort of forward-thinking theatrical piece that we see all too rarely in Atlanta. Castellanos has built a strong visual and aural world with “Fat Boy,” even if it never quite materializes the impact and weight that he’s clearly capable of developing.

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