“In the Tunnel” and “TseSho/ What’s That?” – Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts

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Gesher Theatre’s extraordinary In the Tunnel  juxtaposes two narratives centered on the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Below is the concrete-dun, claustrophobic, dimly lit tunnel in which a pair of Israeli reserve soldiers encounter a pair of Hamas fighters; the resulting skirmish leaves one of the Palestinians dead and the other three fighters trapped together in a stalemate. Above (literally, on the two-level set) is the bright, expansive, technicolor world of television pundits and slippery politicians spinning the event for commercial and political gain. Below, the tension between the Israelis and the surviving Palestinian starts at a rolling boil and gradually cools to a simmer as the three men start to talk, trade histories, and even break bread together, while bombs from both sides threaten to bury them alive. Meanwhile, above, leaders from Israel and Hamas engage in a cynical circus of finger-pointing, zero-sum-gaming, and verbal bomb-throwing, while a hapless German UN official attempts to broker a cease-fire that will allow both sides to retrieve their trapped soldiers. Below, the trajectory of the drama progresses from two dimensions to three, as circumstances force enemies who have pigeonholed each other as barbarians and terrorists to inch toward recognizing each other’s humanity. Above, meanwhile, the characters farcically devolve from two dimensions to one, as they become caricatures of attention-seeking talking heads and vote-hungry politicians.

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L to R: Firas Nassar (Hisam), Miki Leon (Iftach), Ido Mosseri (Tzlil); image courtesy Cherry Orchard Festival Foundation (http://cherryorchardfestival.org/gesher-theater-israel-in-the-tunnel/)

The aesthetic and stylistic contrast between these two worlds adds up to a sarcastic and biting theatricalization of the absurd Manicheanism that propels Israeli-Palistinian hostilities: what’s happening above would seem absurd to those below, and vice versa. Yet with the choice to give dimensionality to the three men below, the play also puts its finger on the scale: we come to really care about Iftach (Miki Leon), the older of the two Israeli soldiers, whose daughter is about to celebrate her Bat Mitzvah, Tzlil (Ido Mosseri), the inexperienced and frightened younger soldier, and Hisam (Firas Nassar), who speaks Hebrew because he fell in love with an Israeli woman, and who fights for Hamas because his brother was killed by Israeli bombs. The cardboard cutouts above, in contrast, are the targets of easy mockery, particularly the intransigent politicians from Israel and Hamas (Assaf Pariente and Alexander Senderovich) and the ineffectual UN envoy (Ori Yaniv).

The dual structure of In the Tunnel allows it to be simultaneously hopeful and deeply cynical, which is an admirably tricky thing to pull off. There are even two possible endings – audience members are asked to vote before the show begins whether or not they’d like the play to end with a light at the end of the tunnel (“Dream!”) or not (“Wake Up!”) The night we saw it, apparently we were in a collective mood for light, and the play ended with a glimmer of hope – for the three trapped men, at least, if not for a full resolution to the bigger conflict that raged around them.

The five young performers of the Ukrainian Teatr-Pralnia (“Laundry Theatre”) channel the innocence of childhood to ask trenchant questions of the political and economic status quo. TseSho/What’s That? is billed as a “puppet cabaret,” but really it’s more a concert performance of music that feels like a marriage of Eastern European folk songs with a dance club beat. Musically, it’s fresh and unusual: the instruments are acoustic – a bass (the kind you see in a symphony, not the rock band kind), a cello, an accordian, a saxophone, a melodica, and a drum set – and the performers weave a complex, high-energy, and at times whimsical texture that includes lyrics often at odds with the mood of the song. For example, their opening number, in which they impart grim news ripped from the day’s headlines (“Hurricane Michael kills 16 people”), has a boppy rhythm and cheerful, upbeat melody, sung as they rock back and forth and point their fingers staccato-like in the air.

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Teatr-Pralnia, cast of “What’s That?”

The performers sing with an impish and deadpan quality that is amplified by costumes that give them a naive, “Where’s Waldo” vibe (all five wear round black glasses and a wool hat with a little pompom on top). The promised puppetry comes in the form of little dolls, dressed identically to the performers, that the musicians animate on occasion to illustrate a song or to foreground the childlike perspective under exploration. The dolls play a relatively minimal role, although one of the most potent stage images of the evening comes when the five dolls “hide” under a bench while the musicians sing of the impact of war. The performance is augmented by moody concert lighting and an arresting media design of ever-shifting images and graphics that both animate the space and provide a counter-narrative to the songs.

I found it challenging to grasp a “whole” from the performance, but I came away with admiration for the skill and finesse of both the individual performers and the production as a whole; in particular, the diminutive Marichka Shtyrbulova has a voice like nothing I’ve ever heard, ranging from a Portuguese fado-like quality to a clear operatic soprano, with a diversity of vocal styles in between.

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BEYOND/PLAYMODES

After the show, we stopped again to take in Beyond/Playmodes, which I enjoyed even more the second time than the first. At 9:30 on Saturday night it was nearly empty, which is criminal – people, where are you? Get yourself downtown between 7 and 10 Thursday through Sunday and catch this light and sound show before it’s gone – it’s free, for goodness sake – and while you’re down there, head over to Tago (the Korean drum performance); Flying Girls (an art installation at the August Wilson Center); Mrs. Krishnan’s Party (an immersive theater performance from India); Karoo Moose – No Fathers (theater from South Africa); Cris des Nago (dance from Haiti); or the new Bricolage Midnight Radio production of Frankenstein in combination with Karate Man Patrick Kim from Tel Aviv.

See you there!

“Pride and Prejudice” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

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There is much to be said for a version of Pride and Prejudice that elicits an audible and collective gasp of surprise from the audience when Lizzy Bennett (Simone Recasner) learns that her fourteen-year-old sister Lydia (Emma Mercier) has run off with the disreputable Mr. Wickham (Chris Richards). Surprise, at a plot point from a Jane Austen novel! Because I myself cannot even begin to compass the impoverishment of an existence ignorant of Austen’s work – and particularly of this, her most well-known and frequently “filmed” novel – I can only conclude that Kate Hamill’s adaptation for the stage is so adept and fresh that it utterly robs some audience members of their capacity to remember the original.

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L to R: Emma Mercier, Simone Recasner, Ashley Bufkin; photo Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater

Indeed, Hamill is a perspicacious reader of Austen, and her translation of the text into a theatrical idiom offers a slew of surprises even for those audience members (guilty as charged!) who would be in a position to fill in lines of dialogue given too long a pause in the action. Take, for example, her choice to figure the amiable Mr. Bingley (Andrew William Smith), who “sees the best in everyone,” as an eager and easily distracted puppy dog; or her insight that the odious Mr. Collins (Chris Richards) is “the original Mansplainer”; or her inspiration to have both the supercilious Caroline Bingley and the ungainly and unmarriageably bookish Mary Bennett played by male actors (Richards and Smith, respectively). These character attributions function like the dash of salt on a gourmet chocolate chip cookie, enhancing the enjoyment of an already excellent and beloved confection by updating it for a modern palate.

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Andrew William Smith (as Mary Bennett). Photo Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

But I do a disservice to both Ms. Austen and Ms. Hamill in referring to Pride and Prejudice as a confection. I know I need not remind you, dear sophisticated Reader, that the pleasure in reading Austen primarily derives not from her romantic plots – delectable as those film versions of her novels, with their wet-shirted heros, may be – but rather from her subersively ironic depiction of women’s limited options within a patriarchal social system. Hamill pulls that thread as well: for her Lizzy, the marriage market resembles nothing so much as a game, with “rules, strategies, wins, losses … theoretically, done for pleasure,” all arranged by overly anxious mamas on the basis of financial and social-climbing considerations. Lest we forget what, precisely, is for sale in this market, we see Mrs. Bennett (the gifted comic actress Elena Alexandratos) pump her girls up before each ball with a cheerleading-style chant: “Chest and bum and eyes and smiles/ Catch that man with female wiles!”

I trust you have surmised by this point that this is not your grandmother’s Pride and Prejudice. Anachronisms abound: while the easily donned and doffed costumes (by Christine Tshirgi) situate the characters in the Regency era – with Empire waists for the female characters and high-collared jackets for the males – the actors’ body language, the sound design, and many of the props are distinctly contemporary. Director Desdemona Chiang has devised playful and theatrically imaginative solutions to the staging challenges posed by the play, employing fully dressed mannequins to stand in for characters who must be on stage while their actor plays an alternate role, plastic spray water bottles to materialize hems dripping wet from rain, paper airplane letters to bring news from the outside world, an electronic door chime to announce a character’s arrival, and red Solo cups for the party scenes. Chiang’s direction also vividly fills in the details of Hamill’s modern take on Austen’s characters, offering fresh avenues of exploration into the family dynamics at the heart of Austen’s satire. For example, here not only is Lydia a mini-Mrs. Bennett, parroting her mother’s lack of decorum and boundaries, but she also becomes an unexpected object of our sympathy toward the end of the play, when she, and we, realize the true cost of her impetuous behavior. Likewise, the always nervous and excitable Mrs. Bennett is endowed with new depth in this version, as she finds inner strength to cope with a crisis that destabilizes the equilibrium of the normally staid Mr. Bennett (Ashton Heyl).

Scenes overlap and shift quickly, aided by the swift rearrangement of carefully curated pieces of furniture (a harpsichord, a chair, a table with a tea set), by precisely timed sound and lighting cues (by Masha Tsimring and Andre Pluess, respectively), and by the occasional intervention of the Public Theater’s black-clad stage manager. Scenographer Narelle Sissons has transformed the space into a ballroom as it might appear the day after a rather wild and festive party, with blue and pink streamers dangling from large chandeliers suspended throughout the theater, and chairs, articles of clothing, and cushions scattered and hung rather willy-nilly about the space. The comedy and “drama” mostly plays out on a central parquet floor, bordered on two sides by banks of audience seats, although at times scenes also play out in the audience itself, including on a large four-poster bed situated at the back of one audience bank (a perpetual visual reminder of the ultimate aim of the marriage game, perhaps?). The arrangement has the advantage of upending expectations from the very beginning, but it also renders the actors’ faces unreadable to a good chunk of the audience at any given point in the performance, which is a shame, because the ensemble conveys a good deal of the play’s comedy and wit through nonverbal reaction. I was grateful to be sitting on the “main” side of the audience, as it seemed we were afforded a more frequent view of the players’ front sides than their backs.

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L to R: Simone Recasner, Emma Mercier, Ashley Bufkin, Andrew William Smith, and Elena Alexandratos. Photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

As Lizzy and Darcy, Recasner and Ryan Garbayo not only ratchet up the requisite romantic tension but also make palpable the excruciating awkwardness of courtship in a world in which one’s prospects and engagements are a fully public business. Ashley Bufkin brings grace and charm to the eldest and nicest sister Jane, and a daffy, horse-like laugh to her portrayal of the sickly and insipid Miss Anne De Bourgh. Mercier embodies Lydia with the wild abandon and energy of a young teen; her Lady Catherine De Bourgh is frighteningly both opposite and apposite. Alexandratos is marvelous as the anxious and overly zealous Mrs. Bennett; Smith is goofily eligible as the bachelor Mr. Bingley, and fully weird as the gloomy “Captain Bad Vibes” Mary Bennett; and Heyl brings a calm sensibility to her characterization of the two most rational figures in the story, Mr. Bennett and the very practical Charlotte Lucas. Rounding out the cast, Chris Richards is imperiously haughty as Miss Bingley, appallingly sly and seductive as the pedophiliac Mr. Wickham, and clearly having more fun than should be legal with his portrayal of the unbearable Rev. Collins.

When you make plans to entertain yourself with this captivating production – as I know you will, dear theater- and Austen-loving Reader – be sure to leave yourself enough time before the show to take in the Festival of Firsts’ light and sound installation Beyond / Playmodes,  located just a couple of blocks east of the O’Reilly on Penn Avenue. Performances start every half hour on the half hour between 7 and 10 pm, last just five minutes, and are free (the Cultural Trust recommends tickets, but walk-ins seem both allowed and encouraged). It’s brief but unique; you may never have a chance to experience anything quite like it again.

Looking forward to…and more thoughts on “Blind Cinema”

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Dear Readers, I really hope you have plans to be out watching some live performance in the next few weeks – because there is just so much on offer that it would be a shame if you missed out. Here’s a run down of my plans for the next two weeks – I invite you to join me!

This week, you can get a good laugh at local and national current events and help out the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank all in one festive evening: the annual satire/fundraiser Off the Record  is Thursday, Oct. 4 at the Byham. The cheap seats start at $31.25 but I know you’re not cheap when it comes to charity, right? Splurge for the orchestra section, it’s for a good cause.

The weekend brings three openings: Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre, the opening of a new play by Liza Birkenmeier called The Way Out West at the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, and the opening of Qui Nguyen’s She Kills Monsters at the University of Pittsburgh. I’m excited about the first because I am a Jane Austen fan through and through (but you probably guessed that about me, didn’t you?) and because I really dug this script when I read it a few months ago. I’m thrilled about the second because this is the first play commissioned by the School of Drama, and Birkenmeier has found a subject of deep interest to explore: the group of young scientists who traveled to the wilds of the desert in Los Alamos in the early 1940s to work on a project that remained a mystery to the majority of them. And the third? Well, Nguyen’s work is completely new to me, which is always exciting, and since I don’t post about student work, if you are as curious to discover his work as I am, you’ll need to see it yourself.

The Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts continues! This weekend, Joan Didion’s The White Album plays at the August Wilson Center Friday through Sunday. The children’s show Gab Squad is also on, Wednesday through Saturday. You can still catch the installation Beyond: Playmodes, and if you are making plans for next week – and you should be making plans for next week! – coming up are In the Tunnel (from Israel); What’s That? (from the Ukraine); and Deborah Colker Dance (from Brazil – one night only, Oct 13).

Speaking of the Festival of Firsts – I wanted to write a tiny bit more about Blind CinemaI sought out a chance to speak with Seth Laidlaw, the Education Program Manager at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, because I was curious about how the kids were instructed and trained to narrate the film. He told me that Britt Hatzius began by explaining how simultaneous audio narration is a means by which the blind often experience film, and that there are people trained to do what she was going to teach the kids to do in the 90 minute workshop. She then had them practice describing photographs to each other, with an emphasis on describing details, using lots of adjectives, and trying to make the description even more interesting and compelling than the photo they were looking at. They then practiced describing the action of a short piece of film. She worked with them on keeping their voice in a whisper, even when they got excited by what they were seeing, and encouraged them to react as they might naturally react to what they saw, but to remember that they needed to focus on details and on storytelling.

I was also interested in knowing more about the children’s experience of Blind Cinema, because in a sense the kids were both audience to and performer of the film. I had the chance to speak with 11-year-old Mia, a student at Holy Trinity who was one of the “whisperers.” She told me that she thought the whole experience was pretty great – not only did she think the movie was pretty cool, but she also enjoyed feeling that she had the responsibility to help another person understand what she was seeing. She said that she tried to give vivid information, because she realized that she needed to give as much detail as possible in order for her listeners to be able to see what she saw. At the same time, she also confessed that much as she liked the movie while she was narrating it, she didn’t really understand the whole thing until she had a chance to think about it afterward.

In the course of our conversation I gained a greater appreciation of the gap between what can be known from seeing something first hand, and what can be gleaned from verbal description. It turns out that there were many events in the film that I had forgotten, or simply failed to fully visualize  – for example, one of Mia’s strongest memories of the film was of a gorilla: at one point the boy puts the eggshells in a gorilla’s hand and then the egg becomes whole again, grows feathers, and disappears. When she mentioned the gorilla, I vaguely recalled having that narrated to me, but because at that point in the film I was struggling to find a visual world into which I could integrate an office building, rubble, fireworks, eggshells, drawn/drewed doors, etc., I completely failed to picture “gorilla” and as a result it didn’t stick in my memory – whereas for Mia, the gorilla was a potent visual image that persisted. Moreover, I suspect it never occurred to any of the kids to include the one piece of information that would most help their listeners understand the film’s visual world – that is, the film’s genre/style. I asked two other adults who had “seen” the film, and they both reported having thought, like me, that the film was some mix of animation and live action. According to Mia, the whole film had real people (and a real gorilla) and real locations – at one point, she said, there was a photograph of a building that turned into a real building, but otherwise it was a live action film. I don’t fault the kids for omitting that information – after all, the vast majority of movies are live action, so it makes sense to assume that your listener would be visualizing a live action film and wouldn’t need to be told so specifically. And yet it’s fascinating that all three of us blindfolded adults (small sample, I know, but I bet we were not alone) arrived at the conclusion that the strange shifts in locale and character that were being narrated to us must have been facilitated through animation or some other filmic trick.

Now, with that information, my own visual memory of the film has started to revise itself, so that Blind Cinema continues to play in my consciousness, long after the “performance” itself has ended.

“Lobby Hero” at barebones productions

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The title of Kenneth Lonergan’s play might have you imagining a caped crusader who keeps the entryways of buildings free of crime and rescues hapless suitcase-toting visitors from evil villains. If so, you’re ripe to appreciate the sly irony Lonergan brings to this fiercely engaging play about crime, punishment, and the people whose job it is to keep us secure.

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L to R: Rico Romalus Parker and Gabriel King. Photo courtesy barebones productions.

Lonergan’s central character is Jeff (Gabriel King), a 27-year-old sadsack “security officer” who is trying to scrape his life back together after a series of unexceptional failures. His job is anything but superheroic: he works the night shift at a mid-scale apartment building in New York, logging visitors in and out of the building and fighting mainly to stay awake so that his rule-bound supervisor, William (Rico Romalus Parker), doesn’t fire him. The most exciting thing that happens on his shift is a regular visit by a pair of cops, the veteran Bill (Patrick Jordan) and his rookie partner Dawn (Jessie Wray Goodman), the latter of whom is a primary object of Jeff’s romantic and sexual fantasies.

You might be forgiven for expecting something explosive to happen that requires these two pairs of cops and rent-a-cops to band together to cope with some high-stakes crisis. But the fireworks here are all interpersonal. Lonergan’s craft as a playwright is impeccable: he carefully winds up a set of conflicts that bring all four characters into each other’s orbits during the first act, and then sets their choices and actions ricocheting consequentially off each other in the second.

Thematically, the play touches on a number of issues that are topping the daily headlines, including workplace sexual harassment (a battle Dawn is fighting), abuse of force by the police, the scarcity of good jobs for the working class, and the maltreatment of black defendants in the criminal justice system. The tendency of those in power to close ranks around their own gets some exploration here, as does the ugly, testosterone-fueled behavior of men in groups.

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L to R: Patrick Jordan and Gabriel King. Photo courtesy barebones productions.

Mostly, though, Lobby Hero  is an at times quite comic exploration of what happens to people who find themselves on the back end of bad choices. As the story develops, the characters each find themselves maneuvering to save their own skins, which leads to shifting alliances and unexpected betrayals. Lonergan’s themes are serious, but his touch is light, and the barebones ensemble straddles the line between earnestness and comic delivery with finesse. Director Melissa Martin uses the small space to good advantage – the playing style is naturalistic, and the actors bring emotional nuance and psychological depth to the character work. Jordan plays the uber-entitled white male cop Bill with sensitivity, opening space for us to understand (and maybe even sympathize with) the motivations and actions of an otherwise fairly unlikeable character. As Dawn, Goodman threads a difficult needle – the character is a tough cookie who nevertheless has a lot of insecurities, fears, and vulnerabilities, and Goodman shapes her emotional journey with subtlety. Parker does an masterful job of embodying the moral dilemma into which William is thrown during the course of the play and also of conveying the simmering anger of a man who thinks he has mastered the system only to find himself thrown into its cogs. Anchoring this production is Gabriel King, who is absolutely superb as the nervous-energy-charged Jeff. King’s comic sensibility is exquisite, and he is both charming and a little cringe-inducing as a motormouth whose lack of filters not only inadvertently triggers the central conflict between Dawn and Bill, but also gets his boss William into hot water with the law.

By play’s end, as Jeff emerges from his existential crisis looking like someone ready to start thinking about maybe taking some baby steps to perhaps take charge of his life, you may find yourself rethinking what it means for someone to be a hero – or, at the very least, you may find yourself starting to get on board with Lonergan’s ironic deflation of the label. For it’s through that diminishment that Lonergan gets at the heart of what it means to really offer a compelling dramatic conflict – that is, that even small and quiet lives are full of moments of recognition and reversal worthy of our empathy and engagement.

Cirque Éloize “Hotel” (FoF)

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I fear my powers of description are not up to the task of describing the delights of Cirque Éloize Hotel. This troupe from Quebec – which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year – serves up a mix of breathtakingly beautiful and awe-inspiring acrobatics, juggling, clowning, dance, and music from a company of performers whose talents seem to have no limits.

The setting is the lobby of an Art Deco-ish hotel vaguely reminiscent of Wes Andersen’s Hotel Budapest. Into this lobby come people of many stripes, and they connect, interact, bounce off each other (both figuratively and literally), and fall in and out of love. Everything here is in motion: suitcases, telephones, doors, sofas – all slide or bounce or fly in and out of the space, sometimes animated by the performers, sometimes on their own accord; likewise, acrobatic props like juggling balls and hula hoops and Cyr Wheels and aerial ropes fall from the flies or swing in from the wings, to be used in an act and then suddenly disappear again, swallowed up by the commotion of ever-shifting activity. The stage picture is one of constant kinetic energy, like a pinball machine, as the entire company suddenly appears on stage for a chaotic scramble in transition from one acrobatic act to the next, or as areas of the set light up suddenly to reveal a performer swinging in the air, or balancing on another’s hands, or scrambling comically up, over, and around the diamond-shaped set.

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Cory Marsh on the Cyr Wheel. Background, L to R: Sabrina Halde, Tuedon Ariri, César Mispelon, and Cooper Lee Smith

As I suppose you’d expect from highly trained circus performer-athletes, the acrobatics defy the laws of gravity, physics, and human anatomy in ways that are gasp-worthy and sometimes a little terrifying. The acts are all incredible – and I use that word in its literal sense, as in: it’s hard to believe they are actually happening – and the range of skills each performer possesses makes them seem like a race of superhumans, as in: she can fly through the air with the greatest of ease AND play the Klezmer trumpet too? Among my favorite acts were Cory Marsh’s Cyr Wheel routine (which was anything but routine!), Philippe Dupuis’ completely insane juggling (at one point he had something like ten items in play; a quick search of the internet shows that this is pretty close to the limit of the number of objects a juggler can handle), and the final “surprise” set in which all of the members of the company performed a bunch of freakily difficult-looking tricks on a pair of vertical poles. Antonin Wicky and Jérémy Vitupier are the genial clowns of the show – Wicky has a very funny set in which he appears to bumble his way painfully across the set. The company includes two sets of beautifully matched “hand acrobatics” partners in Julius Bitterling/César Mispelon and Andrei Anissimov/Emma Rogers (in the latter pair, Rogers launches herself into the air to her partner as if she’s a flying bird). Rounding out the company are aerialists Una Bennett and the leggy, glamorous Tuedon Ariri, and the clowning acrobat Cooper Lee Smith. A highlight of the show is the music, which has a rich variety of texture and mood, and prominently features vocalist Sabrina Halde, who has a smoky, rich voice reminiscent of Adele.

You have another three chances to catch Cirque Éloize: Hotel at the Benedum – it closes on September 30. I’ll leave you with a video to whet your appetite:

“Blind Cinema” – Pittsburgh Festival of Firsts (FoF)

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Dear Reader, over the next 6 weeks or so I’m going to be writing about the Pittsburgh Festival of Firsts (FoF) in addition to the fall season of plays at our local theaters. If you don’t know what the Festival of Firsts is, well, all I can say is: get your head out from under that rock, high thee over to the Cultural Trust website, and make plans to see some of the performance and visual art that will have its World, US, or regional premiere right here in the ‘Burgh! You don’t want to be one of those people who read my post and think to yourself, “Dang, I can’t believe I missed that!” Most of the artists will only be here for a very, very short window, so by the time you read about it here they will likely be gone, and you will be kicking yourself. Seriously, don’t miss out – the last two Festivals were paradigm-shifting, game-changing, life-altering, and just plain made those of us who attended them glad to be alive.

Okay, done shilling for the Cultural Trust. On to Blind Cinema –

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Photo by Kitoko Chargois on behalf of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

I’m not quite sure what to call Belgian film/media/performance artist Britt Hatzius’s Blind Cinema: it’s a hybrid of film and spoken word “performance” that defies easy categorization. It’s certainly an experience, and an unusual one at that. Here’s what happens: you are handed a blindfold as you enter the cinema and are then shown to a seat. Behind you is an empty row. A film begins – it’s a film of an animated white dot on a black background. The dot descends from the top of the screen and wanders around the frame, and then expands to fill the entire screen with bright white light. At that point, you are instructed to put on the blindfold. You hear shuffling around and behind you, and soon the (nine- to eleven-year-old) child who takes a seat behind you places a tube with two cones attached at your shoulder – one cone for you, and one cone for your adult neighbor. You hold the cone to your ear. The child introduces herself: “Hi, my name is ______ and I’m going to be narrating the film for you.” And then she starts to whisper in the tube, describing a film that she is seeing for the first time. About a third of the way through, there’s a pause, and suddenly, surprisingly, a new voice begins to whisper in the tube. And then, after another bit of time, that voice stops, there’s a pause, and a third whisperer takes over describing what’s on the screen. The film ends, the children quietly leave their seats, and when you finally remove your blindfold, the collective group of kids is standing in front of the screen.

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Photo by Kitoko Chargois on behalf of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

The film they describe seems complicated, with many layers of narration and/or reality. From what I could gather, there’s a room, and a child in the room who is looking at books, and the film shows what is in the books. There’s also a projector and a screen in the room, and the child turns on the projector and watches a film-within-the-film that features a large office building with a lot of windows. Within that film, as far as I could make out (and as much as I can now remember) there is a sequence in which someone draws a scene that the characters in the film-within-the-film can enter. The action seems to bounce back and forth between the room with the child, and the world of the film-within-the-film, and the animated/drawn sequences within that world. Something happens that involves a lot of flashes of light, and at one point the room is reduced to rubble. There is a flashlight that turns into a white dot searching across the screen – a clue that the one bit of film we saw before we put on our blindfolds was a scene, somehow, from the film the children get to watch – and there is also an egg, which the child shells and eats, and later in the film the egg grows large and somehow floats up in the sky and joins the stars.

In the moment, I found it surprisingly difficult to visualize what was being described to me, particularly because none of my whisperers gave any clue as to the style or genre of the film they were watching. Although the first scene we watched was clearly animation, for reasons I can’t explain my brain defaulted to imagining that the film was live action, with real actors, and as a result, when my whisperer started to describe some of the more “unreal” events – such as the sequence in which a door was drawn inside a window and a person stepped through that door – I found it difficult to slot what I was being told into the schema my brain had already constructed. At times I even stopped trying to get myself to form pictures in my mind of what the whisperer was describing, often because I couldn’t figure out how to make the transition from the picture I already had in my head to the image that was being described. Nevertheless – and even though, days later, my memory of the narration has become a little hazy – “images” from this film that I never saw continue, improbably, to bubble up in my visual imagination. The sensation is odd, more like remembering a dream on which you have a tenuous hold than recalling a real-life experience: an egg being cracked on top of the head of a young boy with dark curly hair; stars that look like x’s with a square in the middle; a set of windows with a door drawn in the middle; a shelf with three books, one red and one green (there was a third color, but I forget); a boy standing on the books so that he can reach the projector; fireworks; a huge pile of eggshells on the floor.

Blind Cinema is disorienting in the best and most literal sense of that word: it shifts your orientation, not only because you can’t see what is being described, or because you are dependent on both the observational and descriptive powers of a young person who may or may not be able to fully narrate what she or he is seeing, but also because your experience of time is mediated and shaped by a child’s moment to moment reaction to what is happening in the film. Some of the best moments of Blind Cinema, for me, were when my whisperer was taken by surprise, or started editorializing. At one point the first whisperer exclaimed, in excitement and shock, “Oh! Oh! He’s putting the egg on his head!” and then calmed down – “oh, good, oh, okay, it’s cooked, that’s okay.” At another point, the second child commented, “So now he’s going into the door that was drawed, or drawn, or drewed…I don’t know which, I’m not very good at that kind of grammar, but anyway – he goes through the door of the drawing…”; and later, he cried out, “Oh, ow! Okay, there are a lot of really bright flashing lights, it hurts my eyes, ow!” followed by a long pause, during which I imagined that he must have closed his eyes for a bit, too. After that, there was a poignant moment of editorializing: “Oh, this is so sad. Oh, no. Oh….now it’s back at the room, but it’s all rubble. Oh.”

Such moments didn’t necessarily help me visualize what was on the screen, but they gave me a far more potent emotional and psychological experience than I expect watching the film ever could. For childhood is a lost country; we all experienced it, but most of us can’t truly remember what it was like to think and feel and perceive as a young child. Yet at those points in the narration when the child-whisperers reacted spontaneously to film’s odd surprises, it felt as if a tiny portal of access to that lost country had opened up again.

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The narrator-whisperers. Photo by Kitoko Chargois on behalf of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

 

Next up: Cirque Eloize Hotel (FoF) at the Benedum. And this weekend, barebones productions opens Lobby Hero at their space in Braddock. Those of you with kids might want to make plans to take them to see Gab Squad (FoF), which opens next Wednesday.

“The Revolutionists” at City Theatre

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The characters in Lauren Gunderson’s 2016 play The Revolutionists are all fascinating, powerful women from the history of the French Revolution: playwright Olympe de Gouges (Daina Michelle Griffith), an early feminist who authored the “Declaration of the Rights of Women,” Charlotte Corday (Moira Quigley), the Girondiste who murdered the radical journalist Jean-Paul Marat in his bathtub; Marie Antoinette (Drew Leigh Williams), the recently deposed Queen of France; and “La Marianne” – not really a historical figure, but a symbol of the revolution, here fleshed out as the fictional Marianne Angelle, a Caribbean freedom fighter (Shamika Cotton). These four figures would likely never have come together in history (they shared neither political orientation nor class/social status), but in Gunderson’s imagining they have something in common – they are all women whose stories have been wrested from them by history, and who, each in their own right, exhibited a heroism overlooked or underrecognized by the historical record.

It’s up to Olympe de Gouges to write them back into history, or at least that seems to be the driving force behind the play’s action. De Gouges is trying to write a play – perhaps, even, the play we are watching – but both the form and content elude her, until Marianne, Charlotte, and Marie invade her space and demand her help, because “everyone needs a writer for some purpose.” The interactions between the four women provide opportunity for illumination into what they have in common (motherhood, children, a proto-feminist consciousness, a desire to have their perspective heard and recognized) and also into the ways their legacies have been erased or distorted.

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L to R: Moira Quigley, Daina Michelle Griffith, Drew Leigh Williams, Shamika Cotton. Photo courtesy of City Theatre.

Dear Reader, I wanted to like this play and production much more than I did. I’m always up for a good revisionist view of history – especially a feminist one! – and any production that prominently features not only an all-female creative team, but a racially diverse one at that, already has me in its palm. But alas, I found myself unable to board its train, primarily because the play seems unable to decide, from among the many things it touches upon, what it really wants to be about. The closest I could come to pinpointing an “aboutness” to this play was that it seeks to spin out the ways in which the social and political differences between these four figures ought to have been overshadowed by their shared oppression as women – that their sororité could or should have eclipsed all other divisions between them. But otherwise we don’t get much revision of history here, at least not in any detailed or rich sense. Instead, much of the play’s energy is devoted to self-referential reflections on the job of the playwright to write these women back into history, which makes for a kind of clever joke the first few times we hear it, but soon grows tiresome and overdone. By the end of the play, the idea that it’s up to de Gouges to “write their story” has been repeated so many times that you may find yourself, as I did, mentally humming that tune from Hamilton.

Overall, the production – which was directed by Jade King Carroll – lacks a clear shape and forward momentum and feels overly effortful where it should be light and bouncy. The first act takes a long time to get its gears in motion, and then once the train is on the tracks it’s not very clear where we are headed. Nonetheless, Gunderson deploys an anachronistically modern language in the dialogue that often provides a nice frisson of humor – there are some good laughs along the way. Among the cast, Williams in particular, as Marie Antoinette, seems to capture the tone and spirit of Gunderson’s comedy; she also manages to finesse the play’s difficult transition to the dark part of history (in which the three “real” historical figures all end up on the scaffold with “Madame Guillotine”). And visually, the production is compelling: backgrounded by Anne Mundell’s fleur de lys and chandelier-strewn set, the four ladies look gorgeous in costume designer Susan Tsu’s 18th-century inspired clothes and wigs, and sound designer Fan Zhang and lighting designer Nicole Pearce have collaborated to find a theatrically effective solution for depicting the play’s fifth character, “Madame Guillotine.”

“The Father” at Kinetic Theatre Company

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In his Hamburg Dramaturgy, the 18th-century German playwright and critic Gotthold Ephraim Lessing claimed for theater, above all other arts, the capacity to arouse in an audience member a feeling that he termed Mitleid. That word, if you were to translate it literally, would be something like “suffering with”; Lessing theorized that drama achieved its greatest effect when spectators found themselves in a state of Mitleid with the character or characters in the play. The closest equivalent we have in English is probably “empathy” (although that’s far too modern a word for Lessing); other equivalents are “sympathy” or “compassion” (which is the term we used to translate Mitleid in our new translation of Lessing’s text). But there isn’t really a good English word to capture that sense of being with someone in their anguish and distress that the German term carries with it in its root of Leid.

Why am I talking about the translation of a German word in a post about Kinetic Theatre Company’s production of The Father? Well, because in fact, when I think about it, I can’t recall many experiences of theater in which I truly felt that I was “suffering with” a character in a play. I can think of instances where I felt sorry for a character (pity, compassion), or could imagine myself in their situation (empathy), or could identify with them on some level (sympathy). But truly suffer with them? That’s rare.

And that’s precisely the experience French playwright Florian Zeller offers in his masterfully constructed play The Father (the excellent translation is by Christopher Hampton). The central character – the father of the title – is Andre (the marvelous and heartbreaking Sam Tsoutsouvas), a retired engineer who suffers from dementia. He has an adult daughter, Anne (Catherine Gowl), and – at least as far as he knows – he lives in a large, beautifully appointed, immaculately clean apartment in Paris. At first, it seems that our glimpse into Andre’s condition will be mediated by Anne’s experience of coping with the symptoms of his dementia, that is, with his forgetfulness, his irritability, his hostile aggression toward the caregivers she employs, and his lack of understanding about what is happening to him.

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Sam Tsoutsouvas in The Father; Photo by Bea Nyilis courtesy of Kinetic Theatre Company

But we quickly come to realize that our point of identification is not Anne; it’s Andre himself, and the playwright has contrived to structure his scenes so that Andre’s experience of reality is replicated in our experience of the play. In the first scene, Anne tells Andre that she is about to move to London with her new boyfriend; in the second, a man (Gregory Johnstone) comes into the room and patiently reintroduces himself to Andre as Anne’s husband of the past decade. In the next scene, a different woman (Lisa Ann Goldsmith) arrives and claims to be Anne, and when a confused Andre asks after the husband, she gently reminds him that she is not married. In later scenes, Anne and her husband Pierre (now played by a different actor, Darren Eliker) try to get Andre to accept a new caregiver, Laura (Erin Lindsey Krom). Andre likes Laura because she looks like his other daughter Elise, whom he thinks is travelling but who is in fact deceased. Imagine his distress when Laura returns to take care of him the following day and no longer looks anything at all like Elise. This type of switcheroo continues, scene after scene after scene. Not only do people get mixed up, but time does too – we see and experience (with Andre) events happening in one order, or on one time scale; but then other characters in the play gently contradict our experience of time, explaining that things have, in fact, been happening in a different order, or occurred longer ago than Andre (and we) believe they did.

You could imagine a play or film in which a group of characters conspire to screw with someone’s sanity in such a manner, as part of an elaborate and cruel practical joke. That’s also one way to figure what it must feel like to suffer from Alzheimer’s or dementia – it must feel as if the world is conspiring to undermine your understanding of reality at every turn, by fucking around with the cast of characters who populate your world and making hay with the order of events and the flow of time. And as Andre suffers from the confusion and bafflement produced by his dementia, we find ourselves sharing in his bewilderment and in his incapacity to distinguish memory from present reality. At any given moment, it’s unclear whether what we are observing on stage is actually happening or only playing out in Andre’s mind, as reality, memory, and hallucination collide before our eyes.

Zeller’s play also opens an empathic window into the emotional lability of a person with dementia. Most of us would become enraged, too, if some person we had never seen before walked into our home and insisted that they were the caregiver we had met just the day before.  We, too, might respond to the tenuousness of our hold on reality by perseverating irritatingly on some beloved comfort item – a watch, for example  – or by treating the family members who have the difficult task of caring for us with cruel dismissiveness.

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L to R: Catherine Gowl, Erin Krom, & Sam Tsoutsouvas. Photo by Bea Nyilis, courtesy Kinetic Theatre Company.

Johnmichael Bohach’s eloquent scenic design plays a prominent role in the storytelling. The apartment morphs and changes throughout the play, subtly at first but then – in parallel with Andre’s loss of self – gradually losing its familiar features and becoming another space entirely. Tellingly, the unpredictability of the environment is at odds with the efforts, on the part of caregivers, to impose structure and order on Andre’s life, as evidenced, for example, in repeated urgings along the lines of “let’s get dressed now.” The production makes clear just how nonsensical and baffling such attempts at order must seem to a person whose surroundings appear to be changing inexplicably around them.

The Father is a structurally and emotionally complicated play, but director Andrew Paul makes it look easy. He has taken an understated approach that works beautifully: many of the scenes feel as if the characters are walking on eggshells with held breath. This feels right both as a depiction of what it feels like to be a caregiver to a person with dementia, and as an imagining of what a person with dementia might feel as they navigate a world in which reality shuffles around them like a jigsaw puzzle with interchangeable pieces. We suffer with them all, and in so doing, gain a world of understanding and insight into a devastating condition.

“Chatterton” at Quantum Theatre

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What – or who – is Chatterton?

Well, that depends on how much you trust the historical record, and, I guess, whether you believe anything can be verified by documents at all. The “real” Thomas Chatterton was a historical personage – an 18th-century English poet who committed suicide at the age of 17, after having invented a 15th-century poet, Thomas Rowley, and published a series of “found” poems under that assumed identity. The “fictional” Thomas Chatterton of Quantum Theatre’s adaptation of Peter Ackroyd’s 1987 novel Chatterton is, like his model, a forger of documents, and the trail of fakery he may or may not have left in his wake casts doubt on what seems to be a clear historical record. In this version, even his suicide may have been faked – or accidental – or real – and the same goes for a whole host of poems by later (and greater) poets whose work the fictional (or was it real?) Chatterton may or may not have imitated or forged after he supposedly did or didn’t die.

Are you confused? Complicating things further – for the audience member at least – is that at any given moment in the story you have only a very partial and incomplete picture of any of the three or four story lines that zip past each other and occasionally intersect in the course of a peripatetic three hours. Like Quantum’s 2014 production of Tamara, this production asks the audience to follow the characters through the space, trotting from room to room of the byzantine Trinity Cathedral as the action bounces from time period to time period and story line to story line.

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If you start the evening with a quill (as I did), you’ll mostly follow Chatterton (Jonathan Visser) himself as he tells you about his early life and freely confesses his invention of “Rowley” as a means of rising out of Bristolian poverty and establishing himself as a writer and poet. His story line is interrupted by scenes from “the present” (although a present that looks more like 1960 than 2018), in which well-known author Harriet Scrope (Helena Ruoti) has a terrible case of writer’s block and also schemes for reasons that are never completely clear to keep a younger author, Charles Wychwood (Tony Bingham), from cracking the mystery of whether or not Chatterton really committed suicide, and in which Merk (Tim McGeever), the assistant to a recently deceased painter, sells forgeries of that painter’s work to Mr. Leno (Alan Stanford), begging the question – as do Chatterton’s poems – of what constitutes a “real” work of art.

If you start the evening with a typewriter, as my date for the evening did, you spend more time with Scrope, Wychwood, and his friend Philip (Martin Giles) – a librarian, I believe? – and you learn a few secrets about them that we quill-followers weren’t privy to – for example, that Scrope may have plagiarized her first “breakthrough” novel.

And if you start the evening with a pen – well, I can’t tell you what you’ll learn, because unfortunately there wasn’t anyone near me from that track at the (very lovely) dinner that is served around 9 pm, so I wasn’t able to pick their brains about what they experienced while I was chasing after Chatterton and Merk, the art forger (pro tip: go in a group of three and take different tracks – and/or be much more outgoing about grilling your dinner companions than I was!)

Post-dinner, a third time period pulls into view, one in which painter Henry Wallis (Martin Giles) – the 19th-century artist who created a famous painting of Chatterton on his deathbed – convinces poet George Meredith (also a historical figure) to pose as Chatterton for his painting and at the same time falls in love with Meredith’s wife, Mary Ellen (Gayle Pazerski). Pazerski also plays Wychwood’s wife in the present day, who ends up falling in love with Philip after Wychwood dies of some mysterious illness that may have been explained in a track that I was not on.

As you can see from my description, there’s a lot about Chatterton that I can’t describe to you, because even with my partner taking a different track I wasn’t fully able to piece together the whole from its parts. Unlike in Tamara, where you could choose to follow one character through the entire story and thereby glean a full picture of that character’s experience in the world of the play, here the tracks are pre-determined and give you only limited – and frequently obstructed – glimpses of any one character’s journey. This not only makes the story perplexing but also keeps you from connecting to any of the characters – by the time we sat down for dinner almost two hours into the show I still hadn’t found a character whose dilemma I truly cared about.

The sense of ungroundedness to the action is compounded by the space in which the show takes place. A good deal of the action has been staged in the cavernous sanctuary of Trinity Cathedral, where the acoustics render much of the actors’ dialogue unintelligible and it’s not always clear where we are (in the world of the play, that is). Moreover, much as I love the feeling of adventure and scavenger hunt that goes along with scurrying after the actors as they go from scene to scene, it felt, in this case, as if the purpose of our moving from room to room was to replicate a cinematic structure rather than a theatrical adventure.

Nevertheless, there is a lot of ambition behind this production, and the thematic material being worked here feels very much aimed at our present historical moment. I have not read Ackroyd’s novel; I imagine, from this adaptation, that much of its punch and pleasure derives from a deployment of unreliable narration – that is, that as a reader you are constantly having the rug yanked out from underneath you by new information whose veracity is destabilized by your uncertainty about whether or not to trust the source. Writer/director Karla Boos and her writing partner Martin Giles seem, at any rate, to have sought to give their audience that experience of destabilization – we’re never sure who to trust here, or which documents are real, and as we watch characters later in history give credence to documents that scenes from earlier in history demonstrated to have been deliberately forged – or maybe not – we get the impression that the entire edifice on which the historical record rests could be as flimsy as a house of cards. That’s certainly a potent metaphor for the era of so-called “fake news” we currently inhabit.

“The Waiting Room” at CorningWorks

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There’s a sequence near the end of Beth Corning’s new dance piece The Waiting Room that struck a deep nerve with me. Performer Jacob Goodman begins to spin a simple pine coffin around a circle, like the hand of a clock, spinning it faster and faster as other dancers rush in, bearing the kinds of mundane objects that consume our days – a bowl of soup, a newspaper, an outfit – and scrambling to keep up with the spinning coffin. In the background, a fire begins to glow on the three projected screens, the dancer’s movements become more and more desperate, the rhythmic string music becomes more and more urgent, the coffin, and time, relentlessly spin on, the projections morph into an all-consuming forest fire, and suddenly the group of dancers stops, gestures, and disbands, leaving Goodman alone with the coffin once again.

Why did that sequence strike a nerve? Maybe it’s because, well, right now I’m sitting at my computer, staring at a screen, trying to convey my experience of the piece, and simultaneously struggling with the question of whether or not doing this is a valuable way to spend the precious minutes allotted to me. Am I simply allowing my time to be eaten up by life’s tasks – the meals prepared, the websites clicked on, the emails dealt with, the blog posts posted – while that coffin-clock hand spins down the hours to my certain death?

Such are the existential questions provoked by The Waiting Room. Goodman plays a Shomer, the man tasked, in the Jewish tradition, with guarding a dead body overnight before its burial. Actually, he’s a last-minute substitute for the regular Shomer, and because he’s been called in unexpectedly, he’s not fully prepared for the job. He’s forgotten his prayer book, so instead of reciting prayers, he begins to conjure – memories, stories, vignettes, dreams, fears, and images. A childhood story of watching a woman in a neighboring apartment undress. A memory of his mother’s cooking. Dreams of swimming.

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Jacob Goodman in “The Waiting Room.” Photo Frank Walsh, courtesy CorningWorks

Structured as it is around the stories the Shomer tells his dead companion to fill the hours of vigil, this dance theater piece is more narrative than most of Corning’s work, but like most of her work it also slides easily between the concreteness of language and the fuzzy indecisiveness of image and metaphor. Vignettes from the Shomer’s childhood morph from the mundane to the sublime, as if being co-present with death has made him – and us – more alert to the dimensions of being alive – pushing back against the truism, projected at one point on the screen, that “we live as if we don’t know about the certainty of death.” Iain Court’s lighting design gives the dance sequences that alternate with the narrative a quality of otherworldliness, making the “waiting room” a liminal space between life and death, where things that are actually present and things that are present only in imagination or memory collide, interact, share space, and activate each other.

Goodman brings a winning ease to the role of the Shomer, both as an actor and dancer, and his familiarity with Jewish tradition allows him to downplay what might seem odd about the tradition to those unfamiliar with it and to call attention, instead, to the way in which being co-present with the dead becomes an opportunity to connect with the divine and reflect on our own mortality. Catherine Meredith is mysterious and languid as the neighbor whose undressing fascinated the Shomer in his childhood, and Beth Corning brings humor tinged with melancholy to her portrayal of the Jewish mother, always with an offer of (too much) food. Corning’s always-illuminating and captivating choice of music is enhanced, in this production, by the addition of the voice and presence of John Carson, who plays the imagined deceased “Phil” (at least, that’s what I took him to be) and sings, toward the end of the performance, a haunting Irish melody. Stephanie Meyer-Staley’s scenic design looks deceptively simple, but eloquent touches – like the stones that weigh down the scroll-like screens, which evoke the Jewish tradition of placing pebbles on gravestones – add unexpected depth and poignancy to the visual field. Projections by Jakob Marsico and Jessica Medenbach add an additional layer of lyricism and out-of-this-worldness to the performance, interlayering text, drawn imagery, and video with the live performance.