When Malcolm Tulip is billed as actor, director, and playwright, you can bet that you're in for a night of experimental and absurdist stagecraft. In his latest show at the Performance Network, The Day Everything Went Wrong, relatively few words pass through actors' mouths — and most of those are in the form of crazily simple but twisted songs. Think of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya channeled through Tom Waits. Tulip and musician Frank Pahl, a longtime collaborator, make you feel that you're in an eerie, deserted Weimar Republic music hall. Pahl inhabits his own substantial piece of the stage, in underwear and bathrobe, applying himself to instruments, mostly oblivious to the actors, occasionally part of the scenes. The set, by Vince Mountain, is an exploded Dickensian London with a few 1930s appliances dropped in. It will make you gasp.

Tulip came to Ann Arbor twenty-something years ago from England. He's schooled in Jacques Lecoq's much more physical school of acting based on mime and commedia dell'arte, rather than our American obsessively internal character-driven drama. Tulip is now a "clinical assistant professor" at the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance, and career-arc-wise you could perhaps call him an elder statesman of local theater. But he hasn't mellowed: no Mamma Mia! or Love Letters for him. The Day Everything Went Wrong lifts its audience out of the stolid twenty-first-century United States and deposits them in the off-kilter world of early Brecht.

In The Day Everything Went Wrong, a man (Tulip), a woman (Laurel Hufano), and a gawky boy (Brendan McMahon) reinvent the rituals of daily family life: washing, cooking, dressing, kid going off to school, Dad going off to work, Mom staying home and taking more pills. Working as an ensemble, and each with brilliant solo arias, they mime the well-worn tropes of human experience, but as you've never quite seen them before: props dissolve or appear; movements are familiar, props are not; or props are familiar and movements are not. Songs intrude. Pasty bodies suddenly become taut and full of intention; taut bodies suddenly become puffy and inert. It's an amazing amalgamation of visual spectacle, physical invention, and all the theatrical arts, stuffed into an all-too-short hour and a half.

The Day Everything Went Wrong completes its monthlong run on Sunday, September 7.

[Review published September 2008]