Picking up where The Glassblock left off last year and as part of a Recital sponsored partnership with the New Hazlett Theater, we are presenting a series of editorially-independent previews and reviews of the 2017–2018 Community Supported Art (CSA) Performance Series. Below is our review of Escape Velocity by Double Blind Productions, a collaborative response from Recital editor David Bernabo, season review panelists Maree ReMalia and Jason Baldinger. Read their bios at the end of the review. And read our preview of the performance here.
By David Bernabo
To close the fifth season of the New Hazlett Theater’s Community Supported Arts (CSA) performance series, Double Blind Productions’ Escape Velocity brings spectacle — aerialists, clowns, live music, dance sequences, and Chaplin-esque humor. While there are a few confusing aspects to the performance, the evening-length work is a constantly entertaining, technically impressive feat from a unique collective.
The plot and the characters were inspired by a deck of tarot cards — the beautifully-illustrated Wayfarer’s Deck, created by the group’s aerial director Mandy Hackman and visual director John Hackman. To that end, each character is based on a tarot card. But the plot also draws on classic justice-revenge tropes where a collective mass rises up against its oppressor — think Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks or Federico Fellini’s Orchestra Rehearsal.
On a stage with silks streaming to the floor from the ceiling, the Ringmaster (based on The Fool card), played by composer Miles Wilder, introduces the show, wringing out every last ounce of audience applause. The Ringmaster sets the stage for aerial performances and clowning displays, tells jokes, and provides the context for what the audiences sees. This character is set up as the audience’s conduit into the lives of the circus performers, a role that allows The Ringmaster to regulate the audience’s knowledge of the situation on the ground.
Over the course of the performance, we learn that the ringmaster exerts that same kind of control over the circus ensemble but with an additional notch or two of cruelty. A scene where the circus hazes Hope, a sort of “prodigal son” character drawn from the Temperance tarot card, ends with the Ringmaster slapping Hope in the face. Wilder plays the villain so well that this scene drew an audible “boo” from the audience. It wasn’t the last “boo” to be heard.
After another uncomfortable scene where The Ringmaster is tormenting a circus member, the characters rise up against The Ringmaster and force them out of their position of control. The violence, physical and verbal, that The Ringmaster directs at characters can cross the line from character development into glorifying violence, but the plot’s ending resolves this blurriness by drawing comparisons to the violence and oppression that infiltrate most aspects of daily life, whether subtle or overt.
In the Q&A, the audience is told of an optional darker ending with a less glorious fate for the characters, a strange loop where oppressors and the oppressed trade places for eternity. Darker, for sure, but maybe more realistic.
One point of confusion for our review panel was the audience’s viewpoint. The viewpoint shifts in ways that question the boundaries of this performance’s world.
Pre-show, in the lobby, the audience is treated to handstands, face painting, juggling, and a slightly creepy option to “save the Figi mermaid” by spraying it with water. At this point, the audience is at the circus, engulfed by it. Once seated in the theater, the audience is watching the circus unfold. Later, the audience is allowed to overhear behind-the-scenes discussions, which alters the audience’s perspective from watching a circus to watching a performance of a circus. Towards the end of the performance, the performance’s cast is in the seats interacting with the audience.
Audience participation makes sense when a circus member is asking questions within the context of the audience watching a circus, but when performers are asking audience members to comment on the themes of the performance, things get a little murky. Moriah Ella Mason’s tarot reading with the audience makes sense, but asking the audience about “ringmasters in their life” puts people on the spot and leaves them trying to reconcile this new in-performance Q&A session with the show-within-in-show structure. The messaging at the end of the piece is a little heavy-handed, especially since the plot so clearly points us in the right direction to consider systems of power and the forms of oppression that leak out of those systems.
The murky ending weakens the performance, but not fatally, as the extremely enthusiastic and large crowd proved.
The hazing scene is a wonderful bit of choreography with characters passing off a blindfolded Patricia Petronello with increasing daring and potential danger. O’Ryan Arrowroot’s clowning feature, complete with juggling, spinning plates, and stilt work was one of the highlights of the piece. The aerial work, mainly handled by aerial director Hackman and the bombyx collective — an aerial dance collective within the Double Blind Productions collective — is outstanding and endlessly captivating. A ring duo between Petronello and Hackman is especially stellar.
Another highlight is Frank, played by Roberta Guido.
Many of the characters seem to exist as a setup for an interesting technical feat — maybe an aerial silk dance. In this way, some performers pantomime characters more than physically embody them. But Guido fully inhabited the Frank character, projecting the thankless position of janitor with every movement — the small rhythmic steps and hunkered shoulders, a defeated but happy-enough-to-be here attitude.
With so many moving parts, director and dancer Moriah Ella Mason does a commendable job overseeing the operation, even finding space among the big tent acts to include nuanced gestures like Guido watering the mermaid and Arrowroot’s contemplation of power and control when holding the now-ousted Ringmaster’s hat. Wilder’s music, both pre-recorded and performed live, provides a pleasant and seamless backdrop for the piece. Costumes were exquisite, bold, and conveyed the feeling of a circus.
The last scene shows Mason and Guido letting a balloon float upwards. It’s a simple, open-ended gesture that represents the subtlety that this collective can achieve, a nice contrast to the daring technical feats that anchor this intriguing performance.
Jason Baldinger is a poet from Pittsburgh. He’s the author of several books the most recent of which, the chaplet, Fumbles Revelations (Grackle and Crow) is available now, and the collection Fragments of a Rainy Season (Six Gallery Press) which is coming soon. You can hear Jason read his poems at jasonbaldinger.bandcamp.com as well as on a recently released cassette by the band Theremonster.
David Bernabo is a filmmaker, musician, dancer, visual artist, and writer, performing with the bands Host Skull and How Things Are Made; devising dances with his variable dance company, MODULES; and often collaborating with Maree ReMalia | merrygogo. He curates and produces work for the Ongoing Box imprint and co-curates the Lightlab Performance Series with slowdanger.
Maree ReMalia is a choreographer, performer, and teacher. Born in South Korea, and raised in the Midwest, her work celebrates diversity by opening possibilities for who dancers are, what they look like, how they move, and how they train. merrygogo is her platform for creating project-based performance works with communities of shifting collaborators. Through her choreography and teaching, she draws from improvisational methods across disciplines and the Gaga movement language to build community and make space for people to make new discoveries in playful and inquisitive ways.