An Extinct Possibility
Pair of One-Acts Imaginatively Confront The End
In one of the more memorable moments of "Spoleum," we find ourselves with a guy in a water-filled coffin, singing "Me and Bobby McGee" in a low voice, surrounded by floating icons of death, maps of Venice, and other assorted spoils of the imagination. There are a few chuckles in the crowd. The coffin is gradually wheeled offstage. Then silence. Was that supposed to be funny?
For some reason, it works. Daniel Nelson's "Spoleum," the first of a Theatre Project doubleheader by the Performance Thanatology Research Society, comes together in the strange way that productions like this often don't. At moments--especially now--one suspects that "Spoleum" is being outrageous and adventurous simply for kicks. But at the last moment, just when the production appears to fall apart, something rises above the chaos. Like the city of Venice itself, the production cheats death--at least for the moment.
The Performance Thanatology Research Society is, according to its "thanafesto," a "group of scholars dedicated to the advancement of a higher histrionics brought on by imminent finalities." If that sounds tongue-in-cheek (just as you suspect the above moment is a little jokey), at least it begs a question. Where do we start inserting irony, or blurring the lines between what is "dead serious" and not, as a joke?
"Spoleum" effectively straddles those lines. Performer/playwright Daniel Nelson, who is identified in the program as the "theatre maker," has created Venice as a city in a constant struggle with its own demise. The story is about an architect (Nelson) who comes to the city with the mission of rescuing the city's prized architecture from the rising water. He and his wife (Annie Kunjappy) arrive in Venice and, once there, are forced to confront the death of their daughter. Yes, there's a parallel here with the 1973 Nicholas Roeg movie Don't Look Now, and that's intentional.
But that simple plot line is almost peripheral to the play's central mission: to use the city and memories of the city to take the audience down a labyrinthine cul-de-sac where one's mind melds with a city's battle with its extinction. Nelson and Kunjappy move in and out of a lecture format, direct conversation with the audience, and act as they try to re-create Venice as a place where the architecture becomes an encounter with life and death itself.
It sounds a little cerebral, but the performers manage to focus attention on the action. Nelson and Kunjappy sharply divide their personae, managing to create a field where even if occasionally the acting is (intentionally) affected, it isn't sloppy. Boundaries get challenged and violated, but the carefully scripted production is constantly aware of them. Just as Venice is a prototype of a modern city--"a storage place for relics"--the characters are genuinely struggling with the relics of their own imaginations. It's a disorienting, fascinating, occasionally funny, and thought-provoking experience. If you leave scratching your head, there's also the feeling that this one-act has successfully grounded itself in a terra incognita of unrealized possibilities.
The second piece of the evening, "Hystery of Heat," doesn't have those moments. It doesn't even identify itself as a play: Ric Royer and Jackie Milad, the two principal actors here, are performing what they refer to as a performance piece on their web site. If "Spoleum" focuses on a locale, "Hystery of Heat" succumbs to its topic: the overheating, and possible end, of the planet. It ties that in with the advent of rock 'n' roll, anxiety and the origin of heat, and attempts to articulate and rationalize it all.
The six-person production includes two performers (Royer and Milad), an onstage sound engineer (G. Lucas Crane), a projectionist (Bonnie Jones), and two other actors (Lauren Bender and City Paper contributing illustrator Paige Shuttleworth). It takes a lecture format, which moves from scientific discourses on heat, to the evolution of rock from Elvis Presley to Metallica, to a highly condensed, hysteria-driven, end-of-the-21st-century technopop. The distance between audience and actors narrows and, without necessarily abandoning the stage, the performers confront a planet that is growing hotter and more crowded by the day.
Much is said in "Hystery of Heat," but little gets accomplished. By the end of it, the various media--musical, video--are competing with our attention, along with a PowerPoint presentation that could be taken as An Inconvenient Truth ratcheted up to a high pitch of hysteria. If "Spoleum" walks a tightrope above the prospect of extinction, "Hystery of Heat" buries itself in it.
In the intellectually caffeinated program notes, the dramaturg hints that if "Hystery" doesn't work, that may be the point. As stated in the program, "If you walk away from this play thinking that it was a failure, you wouldn't be entirely wrong. It has taken on too much, it has tried to think about too many big things at once."
I have no problem with that assessment. "Spoleum" imposes limitations and manages to transcend them. "Hystery of Heat" melts under the glare of its subject. They're both thought-provoking, and vertigo-inducing, but "Spoleum" truly takes us into a strange and somewhat disorienting world, where our imaginations work on their own. "Hystery of Heat" uses the stage as a platform for a lecture that breeds a semiserious, sometimes phony cacophony of high anxiety. And as we move from play to lecture, you're invited to come to some of your own conclusions about what the stage is used for to begin with.
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