With Cinco de Mayo concluded boom! theater‘s ambitious New Works Festival, “two and a half months full of new art, performance, and parties.” The undertaking featured the unveilings of over a dozen projects in various mediums, predominantly theater, movement, and installations. I had opportunities to catch several offerings throughout the festival. On the last evening of performances, I saw:
Gesamtkunstwerk! Theatre, simplified to “That G! Theatre,” is a small company stationed on Capitol Hill. Their creative philosophies and aesthetic values are contained in the esoteric German word from which they derive their name, a term for the Wagnerian concept of a comprehensive synthesis of the arts, a ‘total work of art’ which employs all forms of art. Over: Exposed manages the ideal with some constancy, employing dance elements, projections, an open dramatic narrative, and the realtime construction of a sort of sculpture.
Over: exposed is a two-person piece concerning a woman and a man who endeavor to connect, communicate, and collaborate with one another. Alternately, in spite of themselves, either will at times evade, resist, or deliberately stymie the other, halting synergy and stunting progress toward their abstract goals. The work, with its disinclination to articulate the intentions of its subjects or reveal much about its world, leaves a lot of room open for conjecture and imagination.
The initial moment of Over: Exposed is one expressly about connecting, or the inability to connect. The man and woman, each unaware of the other’s proximity, repetitively whisper, shout, implore, beg, and rejoice, “Hello?” HELLO! hello” into pantomimed telephones. Finally finding one another amid static, they commence with the dance of alternately reaching out to (kissing, chasing, assisting) and undermining (running from, ignoring, rejecting) one another. This I-love-you-and-I-hate-you dichotomy, and the spirit to manage it, is the bedrock of the short production.
Eventually the show comes around to the piece-by-piece construction of a PVC frame, hung with white sheets. Once hoisted by rope (when tends to be laboriously anchored by the male character) into the air, it resembles the frame of a house, with four walls and an angled roof. As the man elevates the structure, the woman from within induces it to spin, then projects onto its walls and ceilings tranquil, wholesome, idealized video images of domestic mythology, namely children peacefully playing on a serene beach. The play concludes with a suspended contemplation of this image.
A rumination on concepts of collaborative love, family, security, and prosperity, Over: exposed explores how a man and woman relinquish to and accept from one another in order to realize a mutually palatable result, doing so without judgement or hardline commentary. A looseness to the movements of the performers, and an “I guess we’re done” shrug from one of them during bows, suggests that Gesamtkunstwerk! Theatre approached the work with a blueprint, but without a very rigid step-by-step of what they would present that evening. So I would be curious to know how the piece felt to them, and I look forward to catching the next offering from the unabashedly ideal-driven company.
Written by The Steve’s (boom! company members Steven Ackley and Ellen Elizabeth Steves) and directed by Steven Ackley, boatcanoetubfloaty is a sordid drama about parents who are, as they describe themselves, “rotten on the inside,” and the horrors they ignite. The mounting traumas to which they submit their three young sons, then the abominable results of their malevolence, are played out in thorough and grotesque detail.
The parents’ sinisterness is born from self-centered, seedy concepts of personal liberty: the right to get drunk, the right not to care, the right not to be put upon. The very presence of the boys, who are constantly needing and speaking, spits in the face of the mother and father’s egomaniacal views and discomfiting entitlements. So a plan is hatched. The parents draw up a treasure map, and with it trick their progeny into setting sail on the open sea, not to be seen again. Most of the play is spent alternating between the story of the boys, in their puny boat, and the story of the parents, in their moral squalor.
The boys are seemingly without recourse or hope as they bob languidly in open water. As the lights initially rise on them it’s clear that they’ve been adrift for some time, the youngest of the three commenting that he doesn’t remember what their parents look like, or how they ended up in a boat in the first place. Running low on food, varyingly aware of the starkness of their situation, the boys bicker, share stories, and think aloud in a manner that characterizes thoroughly, but doesn’t move action. This is an issue encountered by many ‘captivity plays’: that characters tend to lack agency, and that agency is very, very helpful in moving plots. We, like the boys, must wait for something to happen to them.
On land, the parents drink heavily and fight often, steeping in their own depravity. The husband (Steven Ackley) works to build a boat, a preoccupation for which he is ridiculed by his cackling wife (Ellen Elizabeth Steves). The wife, arguably both the most complex and reprehensible of the ensemble of five, is wrought with incendiary inner conflict. She’s pregnant, and worse, she’s becoming exceedingly attached to her new child, whom she is sure will be a girl. The mother drinks to silence her befuddling conscience, and grows more bitter and mean. The husband and wife deride one another with severity.
With land finally in sight, the boys’ boat begins to sink. As they do their ineffectual best to bail out the vessel, they discuss the notion of abandoning it to swim for shore. Implausibly, the boat sinks very near to the beach where the parents continue to carry on.
The conclusion of boatcanoetubfloaty is in the key of retribution (or revenge), the boys making it to land to serve the parents their comeuppance. The reunion begins with a precarious civility, the parents feigning hospitality, the boys wearing inscrutable countenances. When the tenuous peace snaps, however, the resultant carnage is among the most visceral and gory displays I’ve ever seen on a stage, blood spilling across most of the performance space, leaving most of the characters either dead or dying. It’s affecting and disturbing as it is unexpected and earned.
Operating on a shoestring, one feature the boom! space does not include is a lighting grid mounted on the ceiling. The company tends to find clever ways around this would-be limitation, in the case of boatcanoetubfloaty lighting much of the show either from the floor, or from lights mounted on poles, which actors (or anonymous others) manipulate by hand. Having light sources so close to characters makes for an eery visual quality, keeping much of the rest of the stage predominantly in darkness, casting shadows. This drives home a memorable and bold aesthetic.
Someone once suggested to me that the plays of Henrik Ibsen are like a heavy canoe: that they take some time and work to get going, but that once they’re in motion they won’t be stopped. So it is with boom! theater’s boatcanoetubfloaty, a seizing portrayal of a depraved family (and an interesting counterbalance to Over: exposed).
Looking forward boom! will be performing in three theater festivals in July and August, in Santa Cruz, CA, Boulder, CO, and New York, NY. Touring shows will stage goodbye performances roughly a week before they depart.
Also, the boom! space is soon to house several visiting companies, including That G! Theatre, Blood Ensemble (who are mounting a devised “heavy metal opera in collaboration with local band Smooth Sailing,” Blood/Sailing), and Man Alone Productions.
Lastly, boom!’s Artistic Director has stated that this fall the company is planning to produce three to six works created by the company.
There’s plenty on the horizon to see and look forward to from this promising young company.