Jon Hamm of 'Mad Men' to perform at Mass MoCA

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NORTH ADAMS — Early Wednesday afternoon, Jon Hamm was sitting on the edge of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art's Hunter Center stage, palms pressed against its surface, legs dangling off it like lines dipped in a pond. He was waiting for a video behind him to conclude. On the projection screen, only a woman's mouth was visible, her voice putting words to a romantic relationship's genesis. Then her lips stopped moving.

"The first thing she said to me was, 'I hate your name,'" Hamm's character began a monologue that was cast, at that moment, in the middle of "Fishing," a work-in-progress theatrical piece featuring the "Mad Men" star, director/choreographer/dancer Danielle Agami and Wilco percussionist Glenn Kotche.

Hamm's lines would likely remain in that narrative position for shows on Saturday and Sunday at the North Adams venue, but the collaborators weren't hesitant to alter the work's presentation during rehearsals Wednesday. While Nadav Heyman's script promises a focus on desire's beautiful absurdity, its staging is ever-evolving.

"Musically, it's nice that you start with the kalimba, but not with my movements," Agami said to Kotche at one point.

She had just executed a flurry of phrases in front of and around Hamm, seesawing her shoulders, flinging her head downward repeatedly, running in place. Hamm's character had just explained that "Jons" were boring to this unnamed woman and that a fateful car accident had led her to inquire about a potential acting collaboration with him.

"Let's do something," he said he had responded.

Looming behind Hamm at that moment in the script, Agami pushed him off the stage with her foot. Hamm watched from a front-row seat as the dancer started her rapid movement sequence near Amir Raveh's rustic, geometric set pieces. Hamm eventually joined her on the platform as she contorted beside him, reciting one of his 16 monologues in the work.

"Part of it kind of feels like a Spalding Gray show, in a sense, although he's so static," Hamm said of "Fishing" during a press conference Wednesday, alluding to the late autobiographical monologuist.

"It was my fantasy to have Jon collaborate with the movement, and when I say collaborate, it doesn't mean he has to dance," Agami said.

Instead, she wanted Hamm and Kotche's performances to generate a medium between words and movement. The Israel native's Ate9 dance company had worked with Kotche before on a piece titled, "Calling Glenn." The part they were rehearsing Wednesday was a rare melodic moment in the beat-driven story.

"I'm trying to keep it more on the drum set for this," Kotche said at the press conference.

When Agami questioned his sonic choices at the beginning of her moves, Kotche suggested starting with trick pads instead of kalimba sounds.

"I like the pads first," Hamm said after another run-through.

The actor best known as advertising executive Don Draper in "Mad Men" knew Kotche through other longtime Wilco pals. He met Agami at a dinner party and another event by chance, learning about her work during those random encounters.

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"Every time she said what she was doing, I was like, 'That sounds really cool. What you're doing sounds fun and interesting and cool, and I like fun and interesting and cool,'" he said.

Initially, the concept was quite abstract, a meeting of three artistic talents.

"Let's combine these three things and see what the mixture creates. It was literally that organic and weird and nonspecific," Hamm said.

In September, he and Agami worked for 10 days on the piece's staging, with Kotche teaming up with them for a weekend. Since that time, Hamm and Agami have met monthly.

"I was the one leading us through, 'This is the text. This is the vibe of the music. This is what I'm going to be doing physically, and what do you think about it?'" Agami said.

It was the three collaborators' jobs to set music and movement to Heyman's narrative, which explores attraction and control, among other aspects of desire. For instance, Hamm's character notes that, as a teenager, he wanted to be a metalsmith so that he could build a cage around a woman.

"I would know that she was safe, and I would know that she was mine," he says before reflecting on how his perspective of romance has changed in the three decades since.

"He just wrote this really beautiful, heartbreaking story," Hamm said of Heyman.

In residence at Mass MoCA, the collaborators have found a peace that isn't available in New York City and Los Angeles.

"In other places, there's just so much swirl. There's so much crazy going on," Hamm said. "Here, the whole thing is just focused on this one thing."

The residency also doesn't require a finished product.

"We really just allow them to have time in our theater without pressure of a final project," said Mass MoCA director of performing arts Sue Killam.

But there are performances to be held. Like past residents, Hamm, Agami and Kotche will have to reveal their work publicly when they present "Fishing" this weekend and again at the Solid Sound Festival in June.

"We do ask that people snap a line," Killam said.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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