Now See This
Two Troupes Explore Relationships Without Words
Physical theater companies effectively turn weakness to strength, at the box office at least. They attract deaf audiences otherwise maligned by the theater world. (Can you imagine? David Mamet is boring enough with words.) In expanding audiences—and occasionally educating the hearing world about deafness; watching it, you can’t help but pick up some sign language—such companies garner crossover appeal by creating a theatrical product several steps off the beaten path.
Thus QuestFest, which enlisted two such physical theater companies—American Chimaera Physical Theater and Australia’s Sky Works—and plops them onto Theatre Project’s stage. Both companies were founded by gifted women and rounded out by talented men. Chimaera has Mollye Maxner, a global choreographer and award-winning writer, given to work with the developmentally disabled. Kelly Parsley designs sets and costumes and joins Maxner onstage. Sky Works’ Asphyxia, a deaf acrobat, street performer, and trapeze artist, directed and co-wrote Blood Makes Noise. Sometime teacher Ryan Hodge handles lighting and everything technical. The two shows, Into the Night and Blood Makes Noise, share a theme—relationships, relationships, relationships—and style: more physically impressive than dramatically riveting, more cute than profound, and more entertaining than moving.
Chimaera Physical Theater’s Into the Night sets a love story, of sorts, to a Tom Waits soundtrack for half an hour, creating illusory deafness through his raspy, ratcheted voice—the closest thing to raw, sheer, blinding silence is a constant sound stream, especially one loud enough to drown ambient noise. It opens with a man and a red table. The man does funny things with and to the red table, like an imaginary audition: aspiring actor walks into a room, aspiring director says, “Entertain me with that table, and only that table.”
Parsley does just that. He does everything imaginable to the table—well, maybe not everything, but close enough. He’s over it, under it, around it, lugging it, swinging it.
Suddenly, it’s a two-person show, and allegory for a relationship’s arc. Maxner joins him, and the duo, using only that red table—and now two black stools—create a story with precise facial expressions, gestures, and movements, grace and energy colliding with choreography through form. Together they traverse time and space—have a family, live, die—boogieing all the way. Swinging, spinning, twisting, tossing, twirling, whirling, falling, rising, stomping, slapping, fighting, holding—half an hour straight, pantomiming to “Tom Traubert’s Blues” (among other Waits’ classics) like ice skaters with no ice.
Blood Makes Noise—a self-proclaimed “love story told with circus and sign language”—is less circus than sign language, more short pieces set to chirpy instrumental pop music than long, twisting production. Sam (Daniel Gorski) and Phoebe (Asphyxia) meet. She’s deaf, he’s not. How to communicate? How to share those bland, predictable social details?
More pressing: How do you ask a deaf person if she wants seafood, such as lobster? OK, pinching hand motions. Octopus? Maybe eight legs and such. But eel? Improvised sign language, in the right hands, is hilarious.
The onstage duo do a relationship’s rise and fall. Where Chimaera opted for sheer expressive physicality, Sam speaks aloud in tandem with Auslan, the Australian sign language, in ever-increasing doses.
Though there is a Kama Sutra yoga acrobatics love scene (with off-color mood lighting) Blood Makes Noise is not high drama. The lovers don’t suffer illicit affairs, or drugs and alcohol, or warring families. It’s simply a struggle for compromise. They’re swallowed by routine, gradually drifting apart—too much picking up after one another, too much TV watching, and too much takeout Chinese food.
QuestFest—which belies labels such as “dance, movement theater, mime or performance art”—frills its bill with “a celebration of physical theatre.” “Celebration” is probably a little over the top. “An evening of physical theatre” suffices. And, for the record, to sign applause, put both hands up and wiggle your fingers.
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