Entertainment » Culture

FOR ONE

by Christine Malcom
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Sunday Sep 24, 2017
Karissa Murrell Myers in 'Eugenia'
Karissa Murrell Myers in 'Eugenia'  

On paper, (re)discover theater's "FOR ONE" sounds impossible: "An unmatched personal experience... a visceral fifty-minute event comprised of five plays, built for an audience of one." Far from impossible, though, the overall experience is skillfully executed in the wildly, wonderfully challenging spaces of the historic Gunder Mansion, and the individual plays are intense, immersive thought-provoking pieces.

Each performance accommodates a maximum audience of ten who are then divided into two tracks, "Up Close" and "Personal," in a smallish room just off the mansion's foyer. The experience, once begun, moves quickly without ever feeling rushed, and under the capable oversight of three Actor Guides (Song Marshall, Sonya Mata, and Jay Van Ort, under the Experience Direction of Janet Howe), the practicalities of moving from space to space serve to neatly stitch the five distinct pieces into a cohesive, almost other-worldly whole.

Once upstairs, each audience member places a slip with their name on it next to a pile of cards. These are dealt out by an Actor Guide one at a time, and each matches a card outside one of the ten spaces. At the sound of a bowl chime, each audience members slides the card under the door or curtain to the space, which signals the performer to invite them in.

It's difficult to say enough about how well-done the physical design of each play is. At no point does sound, light, vibration or any other aspect of one piece intrude on the others, nor do they bleed over into the two-minute pauses out on the landing. This pointed separation establishes each play as a truly distinct moment inside a larger phenomenon.

On the "Up Close" track, two of the pieces ("The Woman in Waiting" and "Take Care of Yourself") explicitly acknowledge and incorporate the outside world of Chicago's late-summer lakefront on an unusually warm evening, seamlessly blending it with Matt Reich's sound design. In these two pieces, John Kelly and Ellie Humphry's lighting designs depend almost exclusively on what's available in the mansion rooms, but in both cases, it's used to conceal and reveal various parts of the spaces thoughtfully.

The other two pieces in this track, "Memory Now" and "Eugenia," unfold in rigidly bounded, far more elaborately constructed small-scale environments that showcase Sydney Achier and Archer Curry's set/props designs. Particularly in "Eugenia," Reich's use of sound and Humphry's lighting, as well as the way Mary O'Rourke's choreography uses the claustrophobic stairwell are isolating and creepy as hell. This contrasts impressively with the blinding white clutter and aggressive, alienating use of technology in "Memory Now."

The two tracks converge in "Iconic," a play designed for two people in a much more expansive space on the first floor. Although all of the pieces demand participation in a variety of ways, here, one audience member is cast as the artist charged with painting the other, who in the guise of "the leader" responds to a series of strange interview questions. Here, Curry's set and a collaborative lighting design by Kelly and Humphry seem designed to reestablish awareness of the larger space of the mansion.

At the end of fifty minutes, audience members step through a red velvet curtain into another first-floor space to retrieve their belongings, pick up programs and if they wish, mingle with nine other people whose experiences have been both shared and wholly different, given that each has moved through the pieces in completely different order. Given this last variable, it's challenging to consider each piece individually, yet each is decidedly worthy of consideration on its own merits.

My experience began with "The Woman in Waiting," devised and performed by Melissa McNamara. The space here is a corner room with a smaller alcove festooned with swags of blood-red fabric. Accompanied by pulsing music by Joshua Wentz, McNamara's movement spins a dramatic tale that ends abruptly, giving way to an intense conversation (with snacks!) about motherhood, womanhood, humanity and ends with the invitation of a hug and unexpectedly powerful release of tension.

"Memory Now," written by Ned Baker, devised and directed by Matt Wills and performed by Becky Blomgren and Phil Vasquez immediately ramps the tension back up. Blomgren, fitted with headgear that replaces her face with a projection of her face via an iPhone screen, presses a digital camera into the audience member's hand, imploring them to record the encounter, as well as take notes. The action, as well as the space, are deliberately overwhelming, and Blomgren's ability to provoke a protective, empathetic instinct, particularly as Vasquez "joins" the scene is beyond impressive.

After two such heightened experiences, "Take Care of Yourself," conceived by Avi Roque and Genevieve Locksley, directed by Freddy-May AbiSamra and performed by Selene Perez offered welcome respite and the choice of three different ways to spend the eight inward-turned minutes.

"Eugenia," devised by Ann Kreitman and Mary O'Rourke, performed by Lara Dohner, Karissa Murrell Myers, and Ligia Sandoval is the most self-contained and traditionally theatrical of the pieces. It's also legitimately terrifying, courtesy of the actors' skill in filling the space with silence and movement to tell the story, combined with masterfully delivered recorded narration and use of the space.

My experience ended with "Iconic," created, directed and written by Julian Stroop, performed by Zach Schley, Kelly Schmidt, Eric Parmer and, in no small part, by myself and another audience member. The three actors showed tremendous finesse as they involved the two of us in creating the scene without ever overtly seeming to control the events as they unfolded.

It was this piece that most underscored one of the most remarkable achievements of the production overall: A production can never fully know its audience. To even invite, let alone require, individuals to create the experience to this extent and in such a wide variety of ways is an act of bravery and a show of faith in not just the overall design but the skill of the performers to meet audience members where they are in terms of their comfort and ability to participate. In each of these pieces, that faith is well-earned.

"FOR ONE" runs through September 30 at Gunder Mansion, 6219 N Sheridan Rd, Chicago. For tickets or information, visit www.rediscovertheatre.com/for-one/

Christine Malcom is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Roosevelt University and Adjunct Faculty in Liberal Arts and Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a physical anthropologist, theater geek, and all-around pop culture enthusiast.


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