Friday, September 30, 2022

The Orchard

This adaptation of Chekhov’s play, featuring memorable human and robotic performances, makes poignant political commentary.


In The Orchard, produced by the Boston-based Arlekin Players at the Baryshnikov Art Center, one will still unmistakably recognize that original masterpiece of the early 20th century, The Cherry Orchard. Director Igor Golyak may have edited out a few minor characters and added and rearranged some text, but he has handled the source material with much respect and deep intuitive understanding. Aside from futuristic production design, robots, and a whole other virtual experience happening simultaneously, The Orchard makes Chekhov’s play strikingly relevant in light of the current war in Ukraine.


Juliet Brett and John McGinty in The Orchard. Photo by Pavel Antonov.

The Cherry Orchard, a play about the fallen Russian aristocracy, follows a single family returning back to their estate after five years of living abroad. The house and the title to their cherry orchard are being auctioned off to cover their debt. Delusional matriarch Lyubov Ranevskaya (Jessica Hecht), who is supported by her immature brother Leonid Gayev (Mark Nelson), refuses to turn the unprofitable property into a business enterprise as suggested by Yermolai Lopakhin (Nael Nacer). And it is Lopakhin, who himself comes from a long lineage of serfs working the estate, who ends up buying the orchard.

Across the various productions of The Cherry Orchard, Lopakhin is alternately portrayed as a hero (a representative of the new class of working entrepreneurs) or a villain (a greedy nouveau riche with no respect for tradition). But in Golyak’s version, Lopakhin is neither. He does not represent an opposition to the “old” world, but is deeply intertwined with it and would love to preserve these emotional ties through his love for Ranyevskaya.

The snowglobe-like world of the estate (production design by Anna Fedorova) is about to shatter. Yet the threat to Ranyevskaya’s family comes not from Lopakhin but from the “outside,” embodied in the (traditionally minuscule) role of the tramp, here called “passerby” (Ilya Volok). Dressed in military uniform, he appears for a short scene and everybody cowers from his blatant demands in Russian. "Intelligentsia!" he calls them dismissively, picking up a volume of Chekhov buried under the layer of blue petals that cover the stage. I instantly sensed that it is this nationalistic, militaristic force that is to be feared.

This makes The Orchard a painfully relevant reading of Chekhov. Yet this is not surprising, coming from a director of Ukrainian descent, in a production starring Soviet dissident Mikhail Baryshnikov as the servant Firs. Watching the performance of this legendary ballet dancer (known to some as the Russian lover of Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City) is a delightful experience in and of itself. One can tell that Baryshnikov, despite coloring his hair white, has way too much youthful energy to portray an ancient servant on the verge of death. Casting such a performer as the servant, and then extending his stage time, forces us to ponder the nature of servitude.

The other “servant” present on stage is a giant robotic “arm” called KUKA (robotics design is by Ton Sepe). Its functions, however, are not limited to serving coffee and sweeping. It also has a camera that follows the characters, the images of which are then projected onto the screen that spans the entire fourth wall, separating us from the actors. Unlike the other robotic creature (Charlotta’s dog), KUKA does not simply obey commands and perform tricks. On several occasions it grabs objects, thus preventing the characters (mainly Lopakhin) from possessing them. Is KUKA a spirit of the orchard, a symbolic trunk of the family tree, or an entirely separate character who has yet to claim their rights? The intrigue remains.

It's also worth mentioning that the preoccupation with technology goes beyond the walls of the theater, with a whole other interactive version of The Orchard that happens entirely online. The two Orchards briefly intersect when the at-home audience appear as the “current bidders” at the auction for the orchard, complete with those now ubiquitous Zoom windows.

(The Orchard plays at Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 West 37th Street, through July 3, 2022. The running time is 2 hours with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7, Fridays at 8, Saturdays at 2 and 8, and Sundays at 2 and 7. Tickets are $39, $59, and $79. The show can also be experienced as a live stream for $29. Tickets to both live and streaming versions are available at TheOrchardOffBroadway.com.)

The Orchard is based on The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov. Conceived, Adapted, and Directed by Igor Golyak. Produced by Arlekin's (zero-G) Virtual Theater Lab. Set Design by Anna Fedorova. Lighting Design by Yuki Nakase Link. Costume Design by Oana Botez. Sound Design by Tei Blow. Music Composition by Jakov Jakoulov. Projection Design by Alex Basco Koch. Emerging Technologies by Adam Paikowsky. Robotics Design by Ton Sepe. Director of ASL is Seth Gore.  

The cast is Jessica Hecht, Juliet Brett, Darya Denisova, Elise Kibler, Nael Nacer, Mikhail Baryshnikov, John McGinty, Ilya Volok, and Mark Nelson.

(This review was published on theasy.com on 6.23.22)

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

The Mood Room

Annie-B Parson magically blends movement and spoken word in a story about self-care fanatics from 80’s California.

The Mood Room, the latest work renowned Brooklyn-based choreographer Annie-B Parson, is a trip. Part dance, part “spoken opera,” it is based mostly on Guy de Cointet's 1982 play Five Sisters, with occasional excerpts from Chekhov’s classic Three Sisters, and even a couple of lines from The Cherry Orchard (if I am not mistaken). It is set in 1980s California, where five sisters reunite in their childhood home, represented by the beige rectangle of a nearly empty stage covered by a lush carpet (set design is by Lauren Machen). White fringe curtains hang as a backdrop and frame a couple of carpeted staircases leading nowhere, giving a hint to the scale of this family residence. But if you still couldn't tell this is an upper-class Californian lifestyle, this house has a room called “the mood room.”

(L-R) Elizabeth DeMent, Kate Moran, Michelle Sui, and Myssi Robinson
in 
The Mood Room. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

The mood room remains unseen, but characters retire into it periodically. Maria, who developed an allergy to the sun after her “vacation on a remote island,” finds her only refuge there. Iwan places her red painting there. A workaholic Dolly takes a nap. But there is no reason to suspect that the sisters’ life offstage is any more meaningful than what we see. Sisters come and go, engaging in conversation with each other, mostly discussing their doctors, dieting, the benefits of rest, and their youthful and radiant looks. They sound like a mixture of advertising and quotes of “influencers” of the time (one of them is even mentioned by name—a gossip columnist Rona Barrett). So when they occasionally switch to communicating in bird-like sounds, it doesn’t make much of a difference.          

Enchanting choreography by Annie-B Parson is what makes The Mood Room so mesmerizing. As the sisters talk, they engage in a dialogue with their entire body, adding movement to the verbal communication and emphasizing the alienation effect. It looks like a made-up sign language that only five sisters can understand, but does it convey meaning, or is it just empty movement? For that matter, does their dialogue convey any meaning? “No one changes; no one learns anything” says Annie-B Parson in her director’s note. Yet it is impossible to divert one’s eyes from the hypnotizing performance, greatly enhanced by the superb lighting design (by Joe Levasseur).         

In The Mood Room, the critique of the budding self-care movement of the Reagan Era is apparent. The endless navel-gazing seems pointless and unfortunately rings true today. The predominantly beige and white set, as well as Baille Younkman and Samantha Mcelrath's whimsical costumes, are of the exact same "trendy" color scheme dominating today's most popular Instagram stories. A projection screen obscured by a fringe curtain (video design is by Keith Skretch) shows actresses engaged in actions similar to those on stage, sometimes wearing slightly different costumes, performing in a similar, white-box room. “Am I me or am I double?” says one of the sisters. Nowadays, a lot of us live in two parallel realities, online and offline, so this question has a new edge. The Mood Room is a healthy reminder that, when self-care becomes a lifestyle and the individual focuses exclusively on their own person, they are at risk of losing themself entirely.        

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The Mood Room plays at BAM Fisher, 321 Ashland Place, through December 5, 2021. The running time is 1 hour with no intermission. Proof of vaccination and masks required. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30, Friday at 7 and 9, Saturday at 7:30, and Sunday at 3 and 7. Tickets start at $35. For tickets and more information visit bam.org.

The Mood Room is created by Annie-B Parson, based on Five Sisters by Guy de Cointet with additional text from Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov. Music by Holly Herndon. Sound Design and Recomposition by Mark degli Antoni. Set Design by Lauren Machen. Lighting Design by Joe Levasseur. Costume Design by Baille Younkman and Samantha Mcelrath. Video Design by Keith Skretch. Produced by Big Dance Theater and co-commissioned by The Kitchen, BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music), Carolina Performing Arts/UNC-Chapel Hill, the Walker Art Center, the Wexner Arts Center, and with funds from the Starry Night Fund.

The cast is Elizabeth DeMent, Kate Moran, Michelle Sui, and Myssi Robinson, and Michelle Sui.  

(This review was published on theasy.com on 12.2.21)

Monday, December 6, 2021

Return the Moon

This site-specific dance company’s Zoom experiment hits a lot of the right notes but still seems underdeveloped.

Return the Moon, the newest production of Third Rail Projects, a renowned immersive theatre company (Then She Fell, The Grand Paradise, Ghostlight), is specifically designed for Zoom and is performed in real-time for an audience of 60. I jumped at the opportunity to see how these masters of choreographed narrative in a 360-degree environment would tackle the realm of the digital. The experiment sounds interesting enough in theory but—I won’t lie—the result is somewhat disappointing. Some moments feel sweet and endearing, but the overall impression is of a piece that is still being workshopped.

Return the Moon. Photo by Third Rail Projects.


Return The Moon combines audience interaction (via chat) with poetic imagery and good old storytelling. Only instead of a firepit, we lean towards our computer screen in our darkened rooms, beverage of choice in hand. For the first part, audience members are divided into four groups, each led by a performer. Those who wish to can turn on their video. And while active participation is not mandatory, as with any interactive piece, the theater simply won’t happen if nobody shows up. However the stakes are low, especially after all participants are anonymized at some point early on.

Connecting over quotidian things is often satisfying. Recognizing ourselves in other people’s experiences is something that further facilitates the bond, and Return the Moon plays on this human trait elegantly. Woven into a legend about the phases of the moon are prompts that encourage the audience to dive into their childhood memories or imagine the scenes from the tale. We are occasionally asked to type in the chat things that come by association—nuggets of a stranger's subconsciousness that will play at the end.

For part of the show, we are encouraged to close our eyes as the screen goes dark. The entire narrative is unfolding in every person’s head. This deceptively simple “stage” device is very effective in creating magical worlds. I was grateful for this reminder of the power of imagination and the fact that we don’t always need screens to entertain ourselves. Sometimes the most whimsical visuals are projected right onto the insides of our eyelids.

That said, Return the Moon is full of striking visuals created with simple materials and inventive lighting effects. Tiny houses made of paper come alive with the play of shadows on them. The manipulation of everyday objects, such as a bowl of grains or a piano keyboard, creates mesmerizing visual poetry with lighting and cinematography created on the spot. Early surrealist films come to mind, as well as the liberal-arts-college film experiments of my youth.

It wouldn’t be a Third Rail production without dance! But rarely do we see the full body of a dancer on the screen. However, in slowly crawling fingertips or ritualistic hand gestures, there is as much attention to movement as you might expect from a company whose primary language of expression is site-responsive choreography. In the era of remote work (and entertainment), seeing fragmented body parts (mostly heads) has become the new normal.

But as the moon goes through different phases, so does life. As a reminder that the physical world exists outside the soft glow of the computer screen, the company mails some kind of package after the show. I haven’t received mine yet—perhaps some holiday delays at the post office. Like with any live show, things don’t always go as planned; waiting for a package in the mail is just another, if unusual, dimension.

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Return the Moon plays remotely on Zoom through December 11, 2021. The running time is 75 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $42, Pay-it-Forward at $67, Subsidized at $15. Performance dates and times vary, but the three remaining performances are Sun 12/5, Wed 12/8 and Sat 12/11 at 8. For tickets and more information visit thirdrailprojects.com.

Return the Moon is by Alberto Denis, Kristin Dwyer, Joshua Gonzales, Sean Hagerty, Justin Lynch, Zach Morris, Marissa Nielsen-Pincus, Tara OCon, and Edward Rice. Conceived and Directed by Zach Morris. Produced by Zach Morris & Edward Rice. Assistant Director is Marissa Nielsen-Pincus. Choreography by Marissa Nielsen-Pincus, Alberto Denis, Joshua Gonzales, Justin Lynch, Zach Morris, and Tara OCon. Sound Design and Original Music by Sean Hagerty. Visual Design by Zach Morris in collaboration with Alberto Denis, Kristin Dwyer, Joshua Gonzales, Justin Lynch, Marissa Nielsen-Pincus, Tara OCon, and Edward Rice. Stage Manager is Kristin Dwyer and Taylor Hollister. Production Managers are Kristin Dwyer, Marissa Nielsen-Pincus, and Edward Rice.

The cast is Alberto Denis, Joshua Gonzales, Justin Lynch, Marissa Nielsen-Pincus, Tara OCon, and Kim Savarino.

(This review was published on theasy.com on 11.30.21)


Thursday, November 11, 2021

alice…Alice…ALICE!

A mad-good cast of five wears multiple hats in this promenade adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.

“We are all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad” proclaims the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s famed novel. And when Alice asks “How do you know I’m mad?” he simply replies “You must be or you wouldn’t have come here.” It always seemed to me that anybody who is attending an immersive show has to be a little bit mad, or at the very least adventurous. It is the spirit of whimsy, of exploration, that makes the immersive format a perfect fit for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, where the audience members, much like the title heroine, are venturing into a journey to the unknown.

(L-R) Vicky Gilmore, Terry Greiss, Rivka Rivera and Joey Collins in alice…Alice…ALICE! Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

You probably heard of Then She Fell by Third Rail Projects, a choreographic immersive adaptation of Carroll's novel, which ran for seven and a half years in Brooklyn and inspired a whole new generation of immersive theatre-makers. The show permanently closed at the beginning of the pandemic. So it feels somewhat symbolic that Irondale Ensemble Project reemerges after the shutdown with their own version of the beloved story. It's a different company, and a very, very different Alice.

Irondale Ensemble Project invites small groups of up to 25 audience members to jump down the rabbit hole together. alice…Alice…ALICE! closely follows the original text of the novel, necessarily shortening, or outright omitting, some of the scenes. We follow curious Alice (Vicky Gilmore) from one encounter to another, mostly sitting or standing around the performers as the action unfolds. The Space at Irondale, a vast and gloomy Sunday school converted into a performance venue, hosts the various inhabitants of Wonderland, all performed by the diverse cast of five.

Given the small cast, each actor naturally plays multiple roles, and their chemistry stays intact from scene to scene and is contagious. At one point I found myself bursting into dance with the Cheshire Cat (Michael-David Gordon ), at another answering out loud to Mock Turtle (Terry Greiss)—such reactions aren’t necessarily built into the script, but the moment compelled me to step forward. The minimalist production features simple costumes and props, and uses bare walls (and occasionally some drapes), exploring many of the various nooks and crannies of the two-level space. But the scarcity of production design is balanced out by the radiant performances and lavish live music accompanying every scene.

The sweet naivete of theatrical tricks employed to show Alice’s changing size at the beginning of the show is followed by a blow from reality. Instead of a hookah-smoking caterpillar on a mushroom, Alice meets with a psychiatrist (Joey Collins). Suddenly the heroine's inability to answer the simple question “Who are you?” receives a whole new meaning. In the scenes that follow, fantasy and nonsense continue to mix with everyday realities like living in a nursing home or defending oneself in a totalitarian regime. The deliberate confusion, the intertwining of joy and anxiety in this reading of Alice, is a brilliant find of director Jim Niesen. I only wish he went further down that rabbit hole, emphasizing the topic of aging even more.

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(alice…Alice…ALICE! plays at The Space at Irondale, 85 South Oxford Street, Brooklyn, through December 5, 2021. The running time is 90 minutes. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays at 5. Proof of vaccination and masks required. Tickets are $30; $15 for students, seniors and working artists. For tickets and more information visit irondale.org.)

alice…Alice…ALICE! is by Irondale Ensemble Project, adapted from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Directed by Jim Niesen. Scenic Design by Ken Rothchild. Lighting Design by Emilio Maxwell Cerci. Costume Design by Hilarie Blumenthal. Music direction by Sam Day Harmet. Technical Director is Roni Sipp. Associate Producer is Renata Soares. Stage Manager is Jacqueline Joncas. Interns are Amara Pedroso and Manu.

The cast is Joey Collins, Vicky Gilmore, Michael David Gordon, Terry Greiss, and Rivka Rivera. Musicians are Sam Day Harmet, Erica Mancini, and Stephen LaRosa.


(This review was published on theasy.com on 11.10.21)

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Assemble

A self-guided audio experience turns browsing in a furniture store into an existential immersive journey.

Life is dealing with the consequences of the choices we make. We are happy about some of them, but often we question ourselves. As we agonizingly try to make a decision, our minds swing between the memory of past mistakes and anxiety about the future. COVID-19 only exacerbated this feeling of a "time of uncertainty," which is really an undertow of human existence. But the pandemic certainly played right into the rewrite of Assemble (it was initially staged in early 2020).

Participants of Assemble. Photo by Talya Chalef.

Assemble is an audio experience that combines mundane shopping with existential dread. We find Jane (Jen Taher), the protagonist, on the verge of her fortieth birthday—a obvious time of transition that comes with acute feelings of uncertainty. We never actually see Jane, but, with the help of the app designed by the Assemble team, audience members are invited to join her on a quest for clarity. And doesn’t everybody crave clarity in life?          

In this solo, self-guided audio experience, Jane and her companions are led by Sigrid (Sophie Sorensen), an AI shopping assistant/life coach created by a global retailer whose name I was asked not to reveal. During the brisk walk from the meeting point (a bar in Red Hook) to the secret store, the main character is introduced and the participant’s body gets tuned in (via prompts to register sounds, smells, and tastes, delivered a bit too rapidly). I should make a note here—this was my second time attending Assemble (I went during the initial run in January 2020) so I already knew where this site-specific performance takes place. Nevertheless, I was still thrilled to enter the massive store—would I make better decisions this time?

Assemble is a choose-your-own-adventure experience, in which Sigrid brings options up on the screen of your mobile phone, and you get to decide what is going to be the next turn that Jane’s (and thus your own) adventure takes. The scenes and monologues that unfold upon making a selection might be contemplative or else might encourage you to interact with the environment. 

The experience is made surreal because Assemble is a 100% guerilla performance. No other visitors of the store, staff, or executives are aware of what is going on in your headphones. Trespassing feels exciting, like true street art. That said, the creators of Assemble are respectful of the business they populate, its customers, and their audience members. All the mischievous prompts are innocent enough and don’t stray away much from the behavior of regular customers. 

My only concern this time around is the sensation of an increased tempo in comparison to the first run. With the exception of a few scenes, the rewrite allows less time for the participant to calmly soak it all in. I felt like I was constantly nudged to move and perform actions that didn’t always feel necessary. My guess is that, by activating the audience through physical action, the creators hope to achieve more immersion, but they may have taken it too far. Between Jane’s story of mid-life crisis and Sigrid’s cheerful attempts to piece it all together, there is less space left for the audience member—their sensations, their emotions, their life experiences. And isn’t that why we love immersive theatre? Because it places the participant at the center?  

However, the environment is designed to pull you in, which is something that Assemble plays with. The simple yet genius conceptual frame to unobtrusively claim the store layout as a site of performance and to populate it with new narratives still has a powerful effect. Without ever saying it directly, Assemble continues to be a clever critique of consumer culture, and of the rising expectations that “successful” citizens, especially women, need to fulfill. In a way, the quickened tempo and the intensified sound design is synonymous with the frenzy and density of modern urban life. But I wish I had just a little bit more time to stroke that duvet while listening to the snoring of an unseen partner.        

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(Assemble plays at a secret location in Red Hook, Brooklyn (revealed upon buying a ticket). Tickets are currently on sale through December 31, 2021. The running time is around 1 hour 45 minutes. Performances are daily (Mondays through Sundays), starting every 20 minutes from 5 – 6:40. Tickets are $40; $30 for students, full-time artists and unemployed. For tickets and more information visit projectassemble.org.)

Assemble is by David Blackman, Talya Chalef, and Jess Kaufman.

The cast is Jen Taher, Sophie Sorensen, Danny Bryck, and features a global ensemble of 20 voice actors including Alison Bell, Neil D’Astolfo, Robin Galloway, Brooke Ishibashi, and Mia Katigbak.

(This review was published on theasy.com on 11.8.21)

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

The Last of the Love Letters

Two monologues of ex-lovers trying to make sense of life post-breakup.

“Do you remember seeing those things in those buildings? What are they called?" asks the character of You No. 2 (Daniel J. Watts). He fumbles underneath his mattress, one of the few objects in the hospital room, and fishes out a couple of playbills. “Plays! And theaters!” he exclaims gleefully. The small, sparsely seated audience of the Atlantic’s Linda Gross Theatre chuckles softly behind their masks. Although Ngozi Anyanwu’s The Last of the Love Letters takes place in an anti-utopian no-time, the prospect of nearly forgetting what it feels like to be “sitting in the dark, breathing with strangers” is what connects on- and off-stage worlds. That, and of course the torments of a relationship after a breakup with a romantic partner.       

photo by Ahron R. Foster

In a nutshell, The Last of the Love Letters consists of two soliloquies by two former lovers. In those monologues—enactments of the texts of their letters—You (playwright Ngozi Anyanwu) and You No. 2 (Watts) try to make sense of the people they have become, and of their world without the other one in it. 

As we enter the theatre, You is already on stage, lounging in a tiny apartment crowded with furniture, vinyl records, and chaotically decorated with drawings. The entire set (by Yu-Hsuan Chen) is jammed towards the middle, conveying the suffocating state in which You found herself towards the end of the relationship. Playful, humorous, sincere—the heroine pours out her soul, changing costumes in the middle of the scene to mark her transition from somebody her partner wanted her to be to what she thinks she is. 

The transition to the next scene is jerking—suddenly we are catapulted from the realistic play into a futuristic dystopian asylum, where You No. 2 is confined for, presumably, being an artist. Stagehands dressed in white medical protective suits, complete with face coverings, pack an entire apartment in a large plastic container and roll it away. Only the bed remains, which the lovers still symbolically share despite being apart. The feeling of uneasiness is reinforced by flickering colored lights (by Stacey Derosier) and alarming sound design (by Twi McCallum). 

We get an intriguing glimpse of the play’s universe during this transition, and with the appearance of a character simply named Person (Xavier Scott Evans)—a nurse of few words who periodically gives You No. 2 his medications. Unfortunately, we don’t get much outside of those short bits, and we are left to our imagination to fill in the blanks of this Orwellian world. It might be argued that interpersonal relationships (the couple) are Anyanwu’s focus, but I wish she embedded this more thoroughly in the larger context. After all, the last of the love letters performed by You No. 2, one addressed to his former lover, turns out to be possibly the last love letter that civilization possesses. I am trying to avoid spoilers, but the stakes are higher than just private correspondence, and I wish the play elaborated more on this.

Daniel J. Watts, however, makes it all worth it. With the extremely minimal scenic design now on stage, Watts uses every inch of the space in his physical and extremely charged performance. Every movement, precise and light, seems like a dance. Even his laying down on the floor is one of the most graceful performances of a motionless body, limbs twisted painfully, like those of a broken doll. Watts' performance has that gut-wrenching, bone-chilling, scalp-tingling intensity that is not translatable to the screen (or Zoom). Watching Watts I was reminded of what I longed for during this era of virtual theatre—the magic of stage presence. 

(The Last of the Love Letters played at Atlantic Theater Company, 336 West 20th Street, through September 26, 2021. The running time was 75 minutes with no intermission. More information at atlantictheater.org.)


The Last of the Love Letters is by Ngozi Anyanwu. Directed by Patricia McGregor. Scenic Design by Yu-Hsuan Chen. Costume Design by Dede Ayite. Lighting Design by Stacey Derosier. Sound Design by Twi McCallum. Production Stage Manager is Imani Champion.

The cast is Ngozi Anyanwu, Daniel J. Watts, and Xavier Scott Evans.

(This review was published on theasy.com on September 28th)

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Utopian Hotline — Theatre Mitu

$20-50; New York, NY; Through Sept 26

Photo by Alex Hawthorn

I dial 646-694-8050 and hear the following message: “Thank you for calling the Utopian Hotline. We are collecting anonymous responses to help us build a better tomorrow. At the tone, please respond to the question: How do you imagine a more perfect future?” 


After doing my best in summarizing my entire life philosophy in an elevator pitch, I hang up, my fingertips buzzing. Will somebody ever hear this? Will my message to the future be received? (Of course, I, like most other human beings, do tend to think about the future and have an opinion on how to make it better for everybody.) 


Two years ago, Theater MITU, a Brooklyn-based company, set up a public telephone hotline as a part of the research for a new show. Those messages, as well as conversations with astronauts, astronomers, futurists, and middle school students, have become the source material for Utopian Hotline., a vinyl record and live performance. 


Up to twelve audience members are invited to enter MITU580, the company’s studio, after removing their shoes. A lush pink carpet generously embraces my happy toes as I make my way to one of the round, white cushions placed around the perimeter of the black box theatre. There is a long, low table in the middle of the room with an array of telephones, tape records, vinyl record players, and microphones neatly assembled on it. An elongated projection screen hovers above the table, emanating a soft glow.    


The aural components of Utopian Hotline. make it to the audience through headphones. Four femme performers dressed in white jumpsuits and yellow socks sing and deliver monologues through microphones and telephone receivers. Like operators on a space station, they move around the table with graceful precision, connecting and disconnecting recorders and record players. The performance is woven from songs, messages from the hotline callers, philosophical reflections on the nature of time, and personal memories.    


Part sci-fi call center, part group therapy for those who long to connect, Utopian Hotline. is a meditative and soothing experience. The collage-like narrative takes the audience into the mind of a dyslexic person and to outer space, where the Voyager’s Golden Record is drifting alone in the dark, among other places. But the journey feels safe. And the haptic elements of the show’s design hold my body, much like the 21 layers of NASA’s first space suit held the early astronauts. From the soft touch of the playfully pink carpet to the comforting hug of the headphones, everything feels so calming that I don’t want to leave after the 45-minute performance is over.      


The pressing immediacy of public and personal matters over the past two years has continued to knock many of us off our feet. But holding onto a sense of community and fixing our gaze upon the future helps us rise. This notion is what Utopian Hotline reminds us of: curiosity and care are inherent to humans as a species, and no matter what we are going through, we can always count on them. As Stephen Hawking puts it, the objects are not trapped in black holes forever. And “if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up, there is a way out.”


(This review was published on NoProscenium.com on September 15th)