theater (reviews)

review: impossible cities

[originally published: http://aislesay.com/CHI-IMPOSSIBLE.html]

IMPOSSIBLE CITIES

Co-created and performed by Seth Bockley, Jessica Hudson,
Chloe Johnston, Ira Murfin, and Seth Zurer
Directed by Seth Bockley
Walkabout Theater Company at Peter Jones Gallery
1806 W. Cuyler, 2nd Floor / (773) 472-6725 / http://www.walkabouttheater.org
Through January 27, 2007

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
January 5, 2007

Impossible Cities” is a multi-layered, multi-sensory exploration of utopian visionaries. This two-hour experience of theatre and live music is also a bundle of personal connections to these utopian stories, with connections forged through family, through books, through direct experience, through imagination. The Walkabout Theater Company has assembled an often graceful and frequently powerful exploration of American versions of this drive to find perfect worlds. A new world. A vision just out of our reach.

If you analyzed the acreage dedicated to the various forms of artistic expression that are part of this happening, the Peter Jones Galleryretains for this production its primary role as a forum for displaying visual art. The walls of the main gallery on the 2nd floor of the space on Cuyler Street in Ravenswood are covered by pristine landscapes and other various envisioned bits of perfection. Stylistically familiar Russian Revolution era cartoon propaganda images of the workers evict landowners and royalty. At the end of one hall, images from ancient world maps have been copied for the visitor to color with provided crayons and to leave behind as a quickly crafted human imposition on a world, albeit flat and on paper, in a box.

By show time if you are not already near the auditorium door, a mute actor will find you wherever you are wandering the galleries, and direct you to the auditorium with signs to follow. The music as you enter and settle in the small conventionally set up black box performance space is sitar-like.. As the action begins, our suitcase-bearing guide finds her voice, begins dropping bricks out of that same suitcase, and the metaphors of the evening are firmly established. Jessica Hudson, our initially mute audience wrangler and articulate master of ceremonies for the evening, finds more things to do with her suitcase and several bricks she pulls from within in than you would think possible.

A jazzy two-step musical interlude introduces Chloe Johnson and Seth Zurer who talk about Amana, Iowa (through vegetable puppets and a cookbook) and Clarion, a Jewish communal farm in Utah. They ask the perhaps never before articulated question: “What can recipes tell us about utopias?”, and proceed to evoke through humor, and closely observed vegetables, ready-made food products, and other items, the histories of two different groups striving to find their versions of a perfect world. The link at times is a bit stilted (Seth for example, is telling in part the story of one of his forefathers who participated in the Clarion Utah experiment) and while they were farmers, food wasn’t particularly part of their utopian mythology. But Seth tells us with a smile: “I want to know what’s for dinner” and proceeds to prepare his bubbe’s kugel. Ms. Johnson carves some masterful potato figures, including the leader of the Amana movement (before the community moved on to commercial ventures including kitchen appliances) and a young girl of the community who has visions, inspiring a long exploration of the limited roles that powerless young girls played in many societies and how, perhaps, having “vision” and hysterical communications with supernatural beings could have been their only hope of attention. Make of this what you may, Ms. Johnson is a compelling presence on stage and both Johnson and Zurer entertain us individually and in choreographed symmetry. Both are dressed like fancy waitstaff: be-tied, aproned, with work/prep tables at hip height, on which they prepare food and illustrate their stories to us directly and to tiny video cameras mounted on their work areas.

Ira Murfin tells us a different kind of story, not as a historical Utopian experiment imagined but as a currently unfolding utopian experiment “becoming” in a sense and a community in which Murfin himself has participated. This chapter could and perhaps should stand on its own as an entirely different form of theatrical entertainment. This section is Paolo Solari‘s Arcosanti as articulated by a genuinely theatrical American voice, by way of Spaulding Grey. Murfin’s monologue moves from word jazz evoking Las Vegas and its morphing edges and what this means about the American west, to his experiences with Solari and his built environment. This type of exposition (wash of language and reflections on the nature of desert and new beginnings) is not to everyone’s taste but definitely something the captures my attention.

Seth Bockley tells a more conventionally theatrical story through movement, imbuing numerous historical characters, and set dressing activities such as erecting string webs across the stage upon which he hangs paper dolls that help to tell his story, ropes from which he suspends himself and a chair, and rocks hanging from strings that he swings rhythmically to punctuate an exposition. Yes, somewhat absurd. And, like the second “act” of this production, either this form of story telling is or not your cup of tea.

Light design by Mac Vaughey, sound by Steve Richey, and video design by Stephan Mazurek all augment the various sections of the piece to differing degrees. Video is most used (and well used) in the Solari section crafted by Murfin, but also in the Amana/Clarion food preparation story telling, alternating with intense and simply effective light design. Light and gobo-crafted shadow cities illustrate the sections featuring Jessica Hudson delightfully.

Our narrator, in words and mime, evokes bare, haiku perceptions of this vision, this city, some city, several cities. Projections of light and shadow appear and disappear, as desert oases, just out of her reach, and a vision just out of our reach. This is all an ephemeral and changing story, through ephemeral and changing images. To add to the variety, different musical artists during the course of the run will be featured as a kind of final act in the main gallery after the performance pieces have concluded.

© Martha Wade Steketee (January 5, 2007)

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