FringeArts Blog

How to Live Faster: Interview with Dito van Reigersberg of Pig Iron

Posted May 19th, 2015

141005_PIG_IRON_LIVE_FASTER19118Pig Iron Theatre Company’s latest wild theatrical creation opens this week at FringeArts. I Promised Myself to Live Faster is an absurdist sci-fi epic and wild allegory about gayness in 2015, and inspired by the life and works of theater legend Charles Ludlam. We caught up earlier this year with co-creator Dito van Reigersberg while Live Faster was still in development to give us some insight.

FringeArts: How did the idea for I Promised Myself To Live Faster come about?

Dito van Reigersberg: It was a strange and circuitous route to the sci-fi world. Mainly we began with the idea of a Pig Iron piece instigated by me/Martha Graham Cracker, my drag alter-ego. Originally it was called The Melodrama Project and I was interested in going for high-stakes drama but in a kind of camp or ridiculous setting. One exercise we did early on was create characters based on silly voices that we liked and then we tried to retain these goofy voices/characters but play a serious, dramatic scene, with no comment or laughing on the part of the performers. I guess it was a version of what Martha is, a hairy-chested drag queen who is sometimes playing for laughs, sometimes quite unexpectedly serious and sincere.

Then I was doing Irma Vep at Act II, this crazy quick-change romp of a play by Charles Ludlam. And I was reading a biography of Ludlam at the same time. He was also a hairy-chested drag queen, like me! He led an insanely talented and wild group of ragtag performers and made a huge mark on the downtown New York City theater scene. He was one of our director Dan Rothenberg’s heroes; Dan knew all the anecdotes about Ludlam via his High School drama teacher Bill Sweeney.

141005_PIG_IRON_LIVE_FASTER19466Then we thought about making a kind of biopic about Ludlam. His life story is kind of incredible. He was an outcast, a precocious teen—he staged Japanese Noh dramas with his High School friends. In acting school he was told that his acting style was “too enormous” and that he was to be strictly “a character actor,” and then he created this theater company in which he was the star performer, playwright, director, and impresario. His most famous performance was Camille, in which he tragically dies in hairy-chested drag in a performance that also blended the dramatic and the ridiculous; his company in fact was named the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. His real-life death of AIDS at the age of forty-four is the chilling counter to all of the silly joy of his life. And it is haunting, the fact that he played Camille, a character dying of consumption, over and over, as his most famed role.

But eventually, although a biopic did seem possible and exciting, we decided to set ourselves free from the truth and the real history and give ourselves permission to do something as silly and frolicsome as Ludlam, in a Ludlamesque way, sprayed with an Essence du Ludlam.

FringeArts: And the title is from . . . ?

Dito van Reigersberg: Our title comes from a line from Camille. She says: “I knew I would not live as long as the others so I promised myself to live more quickly.”

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Sebastian has a new show

Posted May 14th, 2015

Sebastian (aka Sebastian Cummings aka Sean Cummings) is debuting his new show Showbiz, May 21–23 at the Adobe Cafe (1919 East Passyunk Avenue), which he describes as “part theater, part concert special, part social commentary extravaganza.” In response to his experiences as a performer, and to the performing arts and the entertainment and news industry in general, Sebastian takes his wicked sense of humor towards the role the media plays in how we interpret the world and “the people that roam it.” In additional to Sebastian, the cast includes actors Anna Michael, Kelly McCaughan, and Icon and dancers Lainey Johnson and Patience Owen.

Sebastian on Broad.

We caught up with Sebastian to ask him a few questions about the show, but to get a good flavor of what to expect, enjoy the hilarious video he made for his successful fundaraising campaign. As Sebastian points out in the interview below, he made sure that he had fun throughout the whole process of making this show.


Fringe Arts: What are the origins of Showbiz?

Sebastian: Showbiz is a “line,” as in geometry; it has infinite points, continuing forever. This “line” started with my experiences post college, navigating both the theater world and the queer world and ranging from things as obvious as the lack of roles available to anyone who has my skin color to the one dimensional nature of performance in the gay scene. All these observations gathered over the years and, for the most part, remained unchanging. Occasionally, the line that is Showbiz would intersect with another line; the media, expanding my thoughts. One needs only a day of listening in to the “media hotline” to notice patterns of how certain bodies are discussed, it’s like the media’s only purpose is to perpetuate stereotypes. Whether it’s the plethora of rappers talking about drugs and money, how a number of feminists doing all they can to alienate and reduce black women, or the “thug” campaign the media uses to describe pretty much any black man. First, I find it wildly uninspiring, second, I can’t fathom why we would even try to reduce anyone to one idea, we’re complex beings, and third, how is this dialogue shaping the way people think? So, I came up with an idea to call the system out.

Fringe Arts: How have you gone about putting the show together?

Sebastian: The text started with a parody of the news, I was writing one day to humor myself and I wrote what would eventually be my Kickstarter video. I thought it was hilarious and insightful. The rest of the script had already been written, in the sense that it happened in real life. As far as the world of the show, I watch interviews. I watch a lot of interviews. Interviews with actors, writers, anyone who has something real to say about overcoming struggles in life and in furthering their career and what happens in my mind is when I project into the future, thinking about things I want, I think of myself in the future explaining how I got there in an interview. And Showbiz is that story. When it comes to music, I just start making, I don’t have a goal to make something that sounds like “this” or what have you. I just create and when something feels right, it feels right. Over the past four years, I’ve made  around 150 songs and I used my favorite ones. “Queer Night Out,” for example, was a joke. I made the music and thought how it resembled some uninspiring pop song and I turned on the mic and just started singing, being silly, trying to entertain myself and the finished product is what came of that. It’s a nice departure from a lot of the songs I had made before it, which are heavier.

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Thaddeus Phillips Brings the Drug Trade to FringeArts

Posted April 29th, 2015

“I was fascinated by the way TV is made: the way you shoot out of sequence and how it actually feels more fake, even with real planes, for example, than being on a theater set.”

Barry Seal 1The Incredibly Dangerous Astonishing Lucrative and Potentially TRUE Adventures of Barry Seal comes to FringeArts May 14–16, the newest theatrical creation from Thaddeus Phillips of Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental. Thaddeus, whose been splitting time between homes in Bogotá, Colombia, and Philadelphia  these past few years, was inspired by the TV show he has been acting in in Colombia about drug smuggling in the 1980s. In the TV show he plays Barry Seal, a pilot who was one of the most notorious drug smugglers in US history. He became fascinated with the process of making the show and the history of these characters. Barry Seal will be followed in September by ALIAS ELLIS MACKENZIE at the 2015 Fringe Festival.

FringeArts: Where did the idea for this show come from and why did you want to make it into a show?

Thaddeus: I got this job, out of the blue, playing Ellis MacKenzie on MundoFox’s Alias El Mexicano, a Spanish language TV show about Rodrigo Gonzalez Gacha, one of Colombia’s most notorious drug kinpins. Ellis MacKenzie was the alias for Barry Seal, who is the USA’s most notorious drug smuggling pilot. Playing

On the set.

On the set.

this role and being thrust into the crazy world of Colombian TV production is where the idea for these new projects came from. I was fascinated by the way TV is made: the way you shoot out of sequence and how it actually feels more fake, even with real planes, for example, than being on a theater set.

I loved seeing what the cameras were filming and imaging what the final shots would look like—and thought it could be really cool to stage a work as if it is being filmed for TV, but with the film crew as part of the staging, and a theatrical language could be developed by creating this world onstage and leaving it up to the audiences’ imagination what the show would look like. This was the initial idea: to take the aesthetics of a TV set and a TV filming schedule and apply it to the stage. The project idea was to make two shows, one small scale work that would give a history of the drug trade and the life of Barry Seal called The Incredibly Dangerous Astonishing Lucrative and Potentially TRUE Adventures of Barry Seal [coming to FringeArts May 14–16] and two, a large scale work with to be created in collaboration with Colombian actors who starred in the TV show I was on, called ALIAS ELLIS MACKENZIE [coming to the 2015 Fringe Festival].

FringeArts: How has the show developed from idea to production?

Thaddeus: As I developed the idea we began to research Barry Seal and then very soon we were dropped into the Grand Central Station of conspiracy theories spanning fifty years of US history. We also researched extensively the stories of Barry Seal relating to the drug dealers and the DEA and CIA.

Barry Seal Grave.

Barry Seal Grave.

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Olive Prince Dance shows new work this weekend

Posted April 28th, 2015
Olive Prince, leader of Olive Prince Dance, is showing an in-progess version of her new full length dance, Of our remnants, Thursday April 30–Saturday May 2 this weekend at the Iron Factory (118 Fountain Street, Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia).
 Olive Prince Dance-photo-by-kaitlin-chow

Olive spent three months as a resident artist at The Iron Factory building this new dance, which was inspired by a passage in Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. “When I choreograph, I often start with very specific visual images, objects, set pieces, or costuming and create ways to reconfigure their meaning throughout the choreography,” Olive explains. To get ready for the showing, the company is “presently installing a set including empty frames, a lamp collage, and visual art that will become the backdrop for our movement explorations.”

An excerpt from Of our remnants was performed last month at the Nice and Fresh series at Cliveden, and it was spectacular, so make sure you go! (I believe there will be beverages to enjoy as well!)

Of our remnants

Olive Prince Dance / Choreography By Olive Prince / Made in collaboration with visual artist–writer Carrie Powell and design artist Kaitlin Chow / Dancers: Evalina Carbonell, Brandi Ou, Caroline O’Brein, Emily Reynolds, Grace Stern, Ann-Marie Grover, and Lindsay Browning / 60 minutes.
Thursday April 30th, Friday May 1st, and Saturday May 2nd at 7:30 pm.  $15/www.theironfactory.org
The Iron Factory
118 Fountain Street, 2nd Floor
Philadelphia, PA, 19122
Photo: Kaitlin Chow

Call for Artists! 2015 Fringe Festival

Posted April 28th, 2015
2015 Neighborhood Fringe
Registration begins has begun at myphillyfringe.com!

Yes, my friends, it is that time of year again, that time of year to starting gearing up to the 2015 Fringe Festival. Independently produced work is the bedrock of Festival, with artists and companies presenting their work in the Neighborhood Fringe, where each neighborhood of the city gets its very own Festival identity—Kensington Fringe, Old City Fringe, South Philly Fringe, and on—and the whole city is teeming with Fringe craziness.

Some things to know: early registration closes May 1st and the final day to register will be June 4th. There are new things happening, we have teamed up with Artists U to lead the workshop sessions which help artists with all the aspects of producing a show; we’re doing Scratch Nights in August featuring excerpts from Neighborhood Fringe shows; and we’re even introducing a Digital Fringe, a Fringe that lives on the internet!

Get all the details and register at myphillyfringe.com. Here’s Neighborhood Fringe Coordinator Jarrod Markman at the signup party:

Jarrod at Fringe Festival Signup Party

Lovertits: Interview with Neighborhood Fringe artist Annie Wilson

Posted September 17th, 2014

Lovertits_Annie-Wilson-283x300“Multiple climaxes, drifting off, getting exciting again, plateau-ing out, calming down, another climax, some snuggling.”

In a performance she describes as a “burlesque-postmodern-dance-theater-bad-improv,” Annie Wilson explores our societal views on sex and the real, messy, embodied sex that humans actually have. Lovertits will run at the Ruba Club (416 Green St) from Sept 19 to Sept 21 in this year’s Fringe Festival.

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Artist Kim Reid on WetLand

Posted September 12th, 2014

kim reidKim Reid is an artist, professor, and curator at the Sweatshop Gallery in Omaha, Nebraska. From August 22 to September 6, she has been an artist-in-residence on WetLand, Mary Mattingly’s floating barge, which currently serves as a living space, performance area, greenhouse, and symbol of environmental disaster. Below, she discusses the importance of community spaces and how place influences her creative process.

How did you hear about WetLand? What inspired you to want to take up residence?
Mary and I met when she came to Omaha to create and install her Flock Houses at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art. I felt an immediate connection with her and the art. I was very fascinated and wanted to understand her working process. The bundles and images she uses in her work were familiar to me. One important moment in my interaction with Mary was that we had both traveled in the Philippines. This shared but separate experience was apparent in her process and imagery. The mass migration from country to city had people living on every inch of space, including dumps and wastewater. After working on the design/build portion of the Flock House project and spending time with Mary, she invited me to WetLand. Alternative, hand-built shelters and transient ways [of living] have always captivated me and I feel that WetLand will be an interesting transmission of these ideas.

As an artist, teacher, and curator, how do you balance the different parts of your professional life? How do they influence each other?
Balancing my life as an artist, teacher and curator is a bit like running back and forth on a seesaw. Teaching allows me to advocate and encourage people in their strengths, curating helps engage the community, and making art give my voice a place. They create a holistic dialogue for my work.

How does living in Nebraska relate to your work? How do you think space and location inspire you? What about living on WetLand do you think will be the most familiar? The most challenging?

I think being landlocked in Omaha has significantly impacted my work. The inability to get anywhere else easily makes it particularly insular. The Nebraska landscape is long and wide. The plains serve as a barrier, a desert to cross. Because of this, the need to make my own world, or fun, has fueled my drive to create.

Because of my advocacy work through the Sweatshop Gallery, the prospect of working with other artists and participants is especially exciting. As far as challenges, I was a bit nervous about feeling seasick.

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Yoga at WetLand

Posted September 11th, 2014

On Fridays during the 2014 Fringe Festival, the WetLand barge will become home to more than just artists, gardens, and chickens. This eccentric menagerie has been joined by a rotating cast of yoga teachers from Dhyana Yoga, who will be leading a variety of classes on the pier. One of those teachers is Malik Wilson, a Philly-based Vinyasa yoga teacher and personal trainer. He brought his philosophical advice and expertise to WetLand on August 29 as a way to help others more deliberately connect with the natural world.

For Wilson, being in nature is an integral part of the practice of yoga, bridging the gap between people and the five elements that he sees as comprising each one of us – earth, fire, water, metal, and wood. “Nature, and being in tune with it, is is the ultimate foundation and groundwork that I use,” he said. During every class, Wilson asks his students to stand like trees, extending their roots into the earth, to feel the ground through their heels while reaching their crown towards “the life-giving source.” He encourages his students to “feel free to wobble,” to sway like trees, embodying a gentle strength. In addition to using natural principles in his teaching, Wilson prefers to lead classes outside. Doing so, he feels, erases some of the exclusivity that might seem to surround yoga. “Outside,” Wilson said, “the mystique is gone and everyone is just here to practice.”

However, he admits, staying focused outdoors can be a challenge, especially in light of yoga’s emphasis on stilling the mind. He describes someone sitting down in a field on a beautiful day, closing one’s eyes, and then being jolted out of peace by a buzzing fly and thinking, “This is a dumb-ass idea, why did you want to come out here?” Wilson’s advice: “You just need to chill out, like the flowers. Everything else is chilling out,” he said, gesturing to the earth, wind, and sky.

Wilson cares about environmental issues with the eloquence of a close-to-the-earth yogi. He sees our current global warming predicament in terms of animals caught in a bind, unable to tap into nature’s gift of adaptation. While most creatures have the instincts to change with their circumstances, humans are a different story, “with these big-ass brains that we don’t use,” he said. Wilson is excited to be involved with WetLand, a project that sees adaptation as a deliberate–and necessary–choice, but one that requires radical action rather than automatic adjustment. Dhyana Yoga encourages its teachers to give back through community service in addition to their classes, and Wilson sees his collaboration with FringeArts and the WetLand project as an opportunity to involve himself more deeply with two efforts he cares about: conservation and bringing art to as many people as possible.

When Wilson moved back to Philadelphia four years ago, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. One day, he was walking up Walnut Street when a sign for free yoga in Rittenhouse Square caught his eye–and then he remembered. “The one common ground that I know is going to be in my life is yoga,” he said. “It’s like freedom.” Wilson first discovered yoga in 1996, when he used it to warm up before practicing martial arts. “I couldn’t keep those long martial arts practices, but the yoga stuck,” he said. The free yoga class eventually led to a job, which led to a career, and Wilson’s path began to take shape.

However, Wilson thinks, being lost can be the starting point for evaluating where you are. Figuring out one’s destination at this point is not important. “If we’re on the bus to New York and lost,” he said, “Nobody’s going to be talking about, ‘Where’s New York?’” Using these moments as catalysts for self-exploration is integral to Wilson’s philosophy. It’s important, also, to be in our own bodies, once we figure out where we are. “Your down dog isn’t going to look like mine,” Wilson tells his students. “Be where you’re at.”

Preventing us from being perfectly or fully, from self-realization and the peace that yoga promises, are restraints that Wilson is fully aware of. He paraphrases the Japanese philosopher, Suzuki, who divides beings into the self and becoming, “our inalienable right to be just as much as we can possibly be without being disturbed.” Being disturbed, Wilson believes, can be a result of racism or politics or stereotypes. Although we have the right to journey on the path to becoming, Wilson does not view his rights passively. “It’s something you still have to struggle to establish and maintain. You can’t take your rights for granted.”

Before we can become, too, we have to be. “There’s no radical transformation without first having radical acceptance,” Wilson said, referring specifically to situations that challenge us, the ones we may not want to inhabit. Another aphorism that Wilson has adopted is that of the tree, from which you cannot receive fruit until it’s grown. We cannot receive what we need until we cultivate a foundation and establish ourselves in a place and time. Wilson believes strongly in the importance of “owning your story, owning your shit, being able to sit in your shit and not be disturbed by it.”

Yoga on WetLand almost seems redundant. The practice and the place have a lot in common. They both emphasize the importance of breaking out of routine, becoming more self-sufficient and strong, balancing the individual and communal, aesthetic beauty and strength, wildness and urbanity. WetLand, as it floats, barely tethered to the pier, almost seems to be closing its eyes, trying to find its balance in an unstable world.

Yoga at WetLand runs twice more, on September 12 and 19, at 6:00 pm each night. Pay at the door, $20 per class.

–Abby Holtzman

Behind the Carousel: Q and A with Josh McIlvain on “SLIDESHOW”

Posted September 11th, 2014

SLIDESHOWFollowing two successful nights at Chris the Brit’s house, because obviously that’s where you kick off your Fringe Festival productions, Josh McIlvain, late of editing our Festival Guide, takes his SLIDESHOW on the road, stopping at Headlong Studios, WetLand, and Moving Arts of Mount Airy before he’s done. We caught up with him to talk about the show.

Tell me about the show. Justify your existence.
I’ve winnowed down 1,500 slides to 80 per tray, for five carousels. The goal was to make the story through pictures, along with writing a narrative that I tried not to tie too directly to the pictures. I figured out a story with the pictures, and then married them into the script. Then I whittled each carousel down so they’re like chapters. Once I did that, I could see where each chapter could end.

Where did these slides come from?
These slides I bought off eBay.

When my grandmother passed away several years ago and she left an attic full of camera equipment. Old film, Polaroid cameras, slide carousels. All this stuff was really nice, sturdy, well-made. I thought I was only person in family who would be interested in this stuff, and it would be fun to incorporate it in a show in some way. I found a booklet of slides in one of her closets, random vacation house on a lake—maybe from the 1950s, maybe the 1970s. I had no idea where the lake was, or knew anybody in the pictures, and they were kind of boring so I didn’t take them.

What was interesting to me was the disconnection I had from them. So I thought that if I can track these slides down again, I could create a show that’s a fictional account of those slides. Then I thought maybe those slides weren’t good enough, so I started acquiring large caches of other family slides.

These were slides that were in lots of anywhere from 100 to 1000 slides of people’s vacations. I don’t know where the hell they came from, maybe estate sales or something. A couple of them I had to pay like $30! I thought I was going to have to pay $2 for them. I’m using material from each group, but there’s one main one that’s the subject of the piece. I trace this one family from the 1950s through the 1980s. I actually portray somebody in the slides, their child, to tell the story of their lives and my life at the same time.

I didn’t do this on purpose, but it ended up being about that same disconnect I felt with my grandmother’s slides.

Why perform solo this time, and why so many venues?
I’ve wanted to create a solo show for a while so I could tour it, so I could have something where if I’m vacationing or traveling somewhere, I could do a couple shows there. And I wanted to do something different, and this is very mobile. There’s me, a slide projector, and a standalone screen. So it could be done anywhere, and I thought it would be good to take advantage of the Neighborhood Fringe idea. I definitely wanted to do a show out here [in Mount Airy], doing a show at my friend’s house, Arts Parlor, WetLand.

I think I’ll learn a lot from doing it at the Fringe. I knew from the beginning it would be a slide show, and that the audience was there, but not in a theater—we’d be all in the same room together. I knew I was basically in the center of the audience talking over these slides. The one big decision I made was to become a person in the slide show itself. Originally I was thinking of a conceit reconstructing the lives of those in the slides through journals and “research.” But I liked the idea of putting myself into the slides. And it just so happens somebody in the slides kind of looks like me. I like the idea of immediately making the audience buy into the illusion of it, like collapsing time, for them to know that the person who’s giving the slide show is not just a lecturer—he’s got other motivations going on than just showing people something. He’s a little wayward.

The cool thing about the slides is that they look so good. They’re crisp, their color is really lush. And it’s really voyeuristic; it’s weird to look at somewhat intimate pictures of people that never had any intention for this kind of use. There’s something interesting about intimate or social pictures of people from fifty, forty years ago, because it brings an immediacy to them that’s cool.

There’s the sense that my character’s kind of living in the past, or that the past is very much in the present, they’re both very much there. A lot of the actual piece—it’s basically a drama. There’s funny stuff in it, but what it is not is my making fun of the people in the slides. My character makes fun of his parents, people in the slides. But it’s definitely not me riffing off these funny people from the past.

What’s unique about the slide show?

There’s a very interesting thing to me about the aspirational aspect to the slide show. You’re gathering your neighbors, friends, family to your house and basically putting on a show. That’s what struck me about doing a theater piece–everything is already there, it’s a type of show. There’s something interesting in this idea that you show your successes to people, almost like you’re in a movie: showing real slides of yourself in a presentation about your real life that you want to share with your friends and your family. Exploring your kingdom in your format that invites you into this screen, like a movie that puts you in the picture.

What’s really different about this from Facebook or Instagram is the live event in the home. It’s nothing like a concert in the home; I don’t really know of anything that’s really similar to that. I was talking to somebody last night, and I think this basically existed from the late 50s through the mid-80s. The computer image stuff wasn’t really a thing until the mid-1990s or late 1990s. What killed it was video–the video camera took over the slide show. Instead of taking images for slides, they filmed everything on video.

It was the thrill, you could make your own TV–video cameras were a way to see yourself on television, and that was crazy. The slide show was harder to do, and probably more expensive in some ways.

SLIDESHOW September 12 and 13, 7:00 pm
Headlong Studios (formerly Arts Parlor)
1170 S. Broad Street
$10

September 16, 8:00 pm
WetLand
Independence Seaport Museum Pier
Columbus Boulevard at Dock Street
Pay what you can

September 19 and 20, 8:00 pm
Moving Arts of Mount Airy
6819 Greene Street (at Carpenter Lane)

–Nicholas Gilewicz

We Are Told to Look at the Thing That Is Not There: Daniel Sack on “The Four Seasons Restaurant”

Posted September 11th, 2014

Daniel Sack is an assistant professor at University of Massachusetts – Amherst, where his research focuses on experimental performance and live art in the 20th and 21st centuries. For the 2014 Presented Fringe, FringeArts commissioned him to reflect on the U.S. premiere of The Four Seasons Restaurant. Here is his piece:

Mark Rothko’s extraordinary murals that he painted in 1959 for a commission with the Four Seasons restaurant depict a series of fields in dark red or maroon, nearly black, many inset with rectangles mimicking the canvas’s edge. Frames within frames, they recall, perhaps, the proscenium of a theater or the rich red of a curtain on a stage abstracted of all content. They are like afterimages on the eye, written in some dark blood-like coagulate of time. Occasional pillars that stand on the canvases act as figures briefly shadowing an empty stage. The theater appears to disappear.

The paintings never appeared at their intended site–Rothko refused to have them exhibited at a restaurant so dedicated to the excessive consumption of capital–and they never appear in Romeo Castellucci’s performance The Four Seasons Restaurant. Instead, we are told to look at the thing that is not there, to see the artistic act as an apocalyptic event where creation couples with decreation. It has been said that this interweaving of appearance and disappearance is a peculiar characteristic of living. We know our life through its passing. So, too, in the theater–that strangely antiquarian art still caught up in a fleeting live moment shared between spectator and event–here we are, in the words of the late Herbert Blau, watching someone die in front of our eyes, dying together as it were.

But what if the only thing to see is the masking of the object we so crave to see, to know, to love? What is gained in this loss? In The Minister’s Black Veil, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1836 story that serves as a common root for the cycle of works to which The Four Seasons Restaurant belongs, the eponymous minister one day inexplicably dons a black veil that he refuses to have removed even after his death. His decision to retain possession of his appearance produces all kinds of manic responses in the eyes of his beholders. They imagine all kinds of powers–divine and demonic–in his obscured visage, project onto that black curtain their own imagined vision of whatever expression might be hiding beneath. So here the act of disappearing becomes a profoundly creative gesture. We might call it “art,” an art that the spectator produces.

The performance The Four Seasons Restaurant begins with the story of a satellite at the far reaches of imagined distance, a recording that relays the sound of a black hole discovered in the Perseus galaxy some 250 million light years away. This is a record of the end of sight and matter, taking away the paintings and all else. Originally a document outside our range of hearing, the noise has been transposed into an audible register, its hazy rough cackles and deep throbs cast huge and terrifying. The sublime depths of the universe speak a glossolalia that contains whole worlds of diversity. Not the black of negation, but of creation.

The young women that come forward to the edge of the playing space and look out at the audience are another kind of satellite around the black hole’s open mouth. They are “actors” learning to translate this other abyss–the great open maw of the proscenium theater–into a form that might be communicated. Their action, a decision to cut short their voice in the most material of ways, is visceral and unbearable. The mad visionary theater-maker Antonin Artaud wrote with terror about the everyday act of speech not only because sound cannot stand still or it would cease to be, not only because it must always leave us, but also because the speaker does not possess the word “I” he or she temporarily claims from a common language. In order to appear in speech, one’s peculiar singularity must disappear behind the uniform word “I”. Artaud would be proud of these uniformly dressed disciples. They have willed their separation from speech, forestalling the incision between speaker and spoken word with a cut of their own devising. One might say that they have refused the fruit of knowledge, refused even to sit at the restaurant, and instead suspended themselves in a pre- (or post-) lingual state.

It seems a linguistic and social suicide, irrevocable, but however gut-wrenchingly realistic, it is a theatrical game played in a place of training the body, a gymnasium. And so when they do the seemingly impossible and speak again, we can only be so surprised. The young women perform a version of The Death of Empedocles, the unfinished trauerspiel (mourning play) that the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin wrote between 1798 and 1799. Exiled from his city in Sicily because his influence threatened its politicians, the ancient philosopher Empedocles turned his back on society even as his people begged him to lead them. Like Rothko, like Hawthorne’s minister, he decided to retain possession of himself for himself rather than for a public. Seeking to join with infinite Nature, the philosopher threw himself into the depths of Mount Etna, his suicide born of a desire to transcend his human form. Supposedly, his bronzed sandal was spit back out, either mocking his ambitions or proving his apotheosis to his disciples. Something always remains from our departures, an echo across the distance, a shadow on a canvas, a small bit of flesh.

In Hölderlin’s play the philosopher is a poet who repeatedly mourns his distance from a natural world that once felt immediate. In this way, it belongs in conversation with the contemporaneous poetry of Wordsworth and the English Romantics. Yet Castellucci’s performance is not simply longing for untrammeled sublimity. The young women all wear Amish dresses; like anchorites of old, or Empedocles shunning the city for the mountains, they mark their separation from the contemporary world. But theirs is not a hermitage of isolated individuals so much as a mass joined together against the idea of the single subject. They perform the play as if it were a collective ritual handed down for generations. They all take turns rehearsing the parts, mimicking the gestures like understudies preparing for when they will be called up. At times, they switch roles, never entirely inside their part. And, as the play progresses, the women’s voices, too, become divorced from their particular bodies, seeming to issue the costume itself, as if the part spoke on their behalf. Such communal gatherings and ritual actions before the sublime may occasionally take place in theaters, in churches, and in political rallies–all sites that can turn sinister, where armbands and flags might be distributed, guns slung across shoulders, pistols brandished in honor of whatever transcendent divinity or demon. In other words, the theater is a dangerous place, perhaps most of all in those moments when it leaves us speechless, when it retains its potential to say or do many things at once.

It ends as it begins, with a kind of seething instrument for disappearance: not the sound of a black hole swallowing worlds whole, but the theater itself alighting on its potential to hide many worlds within its own black hole. Recall that “Apocalypse”–that word we use to describe the time between ending and beginning–derives from the Greek word for “unveiling”. This means that every time a curtain opens in a theater, our mundane world ends and another begins. Rothko’s paintings suspend such a curtain in the process of unveiling, in the transition to blackout where we can only just see an image taking leave of us. And in the final moments of The Four Seasons Restaurant we encounter a similarly suspended oscillation between appearance and disappearance, the theater performing a veiling and unveiling at once, without settling on a scene or sense.

What do we see in these churning folds of the curtain, these flashes of light? Worlds flicker past so fast that you may think yourself dreaming, hallucinating alone in your particular corner of perception. Castellucci has said that the theater of the future is the theater of the spectator, meaning that it concerns itself with what it means to be a spectator. Just as the villagers in Hawthorne’s story project all manner of spirits onto the veil of their minister, so the spectator in Castellucci’s theater sees herself or himself reflected in these constantly changing scenes. You see your potential to see, to create, to destroy, for better and for worse.

–Daniel Sack

The Four Seasons Restaurant
September 11-13, 8:00 pm
23rd Street Armory
22 S. 23rd Street
$39, tickets here