A Tarot Circus: Double Blind Productions Presents ‘Escape Velocity’

Closing performance of the New Hazlett CSA Series, Season 5



By David Bernabo

Recital continues our partnership with the New Hazlett Theater by publishing a preview, an editorially-independent review, and a video for the five performances in the 2017–18 CSA Performance Series season.

Throughout the season, Recital is meeting with each of the artists to bring you a brief profile of them and their work in the days before their opening performance. We will publish a considered review or a post-show discussion with the artists for each performance, developed from post-show discussions with a consistent panel of local experts in related disciplines.

In 15th century Italy, the tarot card emerged. Hand-painted in small editions, tarot decks were originally used to play games, not for divination. War spread these early decks to Switzerland and France, variations and mutations of game rules emerged, and in the 18th century, tarot card-based games like the Austrian Bauerntarock, the French jeu de tarot and the Italian tarocchini became extremely popular throughout Europe.

Tarot Nouveau trumps circa 1910. (Wiki Commons)

Around 1789, Etteilla, the pseudonym of French occultist Jean-Baptiste Alliette, was the first person to issue a tarot deck for divination purposes, alongside a few publications discussing how tarot cards could be used in cartomancy — fortune-telling using a deck of cards. Freemasons elevated this humble game deck to a source of ancient wisdom. Occult author Éliphas Lévi linked tarot to the Kabbalah. From there, esoteric tarot entered the wider public consciousness and inevitably became an influence for art projects — French artist Niki de Saint Phalle spent two decades sculpting the impressively large and intricate Tarot Garden in Tuscany, film director Terrence Malick drew upon tarot cards to structure his Knight of Cups film, and video games like The Fool’s Errand, Persona, and The Blinding of Isaac all use tarot cards as some sort of inspiration or power-up feature.

Cartomancy, itself, could be interpreted as a type of theater. But on May 31 at the New Hazlett Theater, the multi-city interdisciplinary performance collective Double Blind Productions will intertwine theater and tarot in their partially immersive, partially interactive CSA series season closer, Escape Velocity.

Mandy Hackman.

Members of the collective, aerialist Mandy Hackman and choreographer Moriah Ella Mason, grew up in Westmoreland County. High school is where they fostered an interest in tarot.

“We would sit in Eat’n Park — because it was the only place open after 9PM — and read tarot with our friends,” says Mason. “A couple years ago Mandy and her older brother John created an original circus themed tarot deck called ‘The Wayfarer’s Arcana.’ They gifted me a deck, and that gift and the conversations that came out of it generated the concept for the show.”

Beyond the production’s use of tarot images and readings — Mason says, “[The performance] has multiple endings, and what ending is performed will be based on a tarot spread that we read from the audience” — the show is filled with acrobatic feats like aerial silks and hoops.

In the upstairs rehearsal room at the New Hazlett Theater, the collective take turns pulling themselves into the air, twisting and turning silks to propel their bodies in circular motions and downwards into sudden drops. There are solo and duo routines. In rehearsal, an aerial rig acts as the support structure for these jaw-dropping maneuvers. For the performance, the aerialists will be hanging from the theater’s ceiling.

It’s a circus show, complete with audience participation.

“One thing people should be prepared for is that the audience is implicated in the narrative itself,” says aerialist Mandy Hackman. “So, whether the audience does or doesn’t interact with the characters in a certain ways effects how the show progresses — if it ends well or badly.”

(The audience has also been instructed to arrive early. Hint, hint. Wink, wink.)

Pulling all of these influences and aspects into one piece may seem daunting, but the multi-genre Double Blind Productions contains a diverse pool of talented people. Mason directs the movement on the ground, while Mandy Hackman directs the movement in the air. Miles Wilder generates live music, O’Ryan McGowan-Arrowroot provides miming and clowning, and the Bombyx Collective (yes, a collective within a collective) will inhabit the stage floor and the airspace. Angela Whalen, another high school friend of Mason and Hackman’s, shapes the stories within the performance. And illustrator John Hackman provides visuals, including The Wayfarer’s Arcana deck, which inspired the performance.

Oryan the Omazing Highlight. Video by Mandy Hackman.

“The thing that I’m most excited about with this show is how we are creating another world for [the audience] to step into,” says composer and musician Miles Wilder. “For me as an audience member going to a show where you don’t know the rules right away and there’s some mysterious element to where [we are] — that’s really fun, and I’m excited to build that out and create that world for people.”

Part chance-based game, part circus, part have-your-adventure-chosen-for-you-based-on-your-actions-and-responses, Escape Velocity does not just rely on technique and cleverness. “The whole thing is really a metaphor for what patterns we get stuck in, how we relate to power structures, and what we can do to change, rebel, and transcend,” says Mason.

Escape Velocity premieres on Thursday, May 31 at 8PM at the New Hazlett Theater. Buy tickets here or at the door. 6 Allegheny Square E, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.