Hearts and Flowers: Torry Bend’s Magic

Street Signs Center for Literature and Performance premieres Torry Bend’s most beautiful work yet at Manbites Dog Theater.

Grace's fateful journey. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Grace’s fateful journey. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Making art about love–in the widest sense of the word–and the precarious grandeur of life–in its broadest sense–takes a valiant dreamer. Durham has been blessed with the presence of one such in the person of Torry Bend, who makes object theater works that require both a multi-dimensional imagination and a high level of craft in multiple media. She first blew our collective mind with The Paper Hat Game; then collaborated with the musical group Bombadil on Love’s Infrastructure, while she was teaching in Theatre Studies at Duke. She’ll be leaving us shortly to teach at the University of Minnesota, but before leaving, she’s presenting us with–literally–the gift of Grace, in If My Feet Have Lost the Ground.

Grace about to jump the fence. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Grace about to jump the fence. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Grace lives alone in a neat little house, and flies a lot on business. In the unhurried opening sequence, we see Grace in a hurry, running with her roller bag out of her house, to the airport, through the airport and onto the plane, checking her watch, scrolling and tapping on her phone all the while. But this trip is unlike any other. Idly rifling through the seat-back pocket, she finds an envelope inscribed READ ME. On the flap is a Munich address. Inside she finds a beating heart.

And so, like Alice, we and Grace find ourselves suddenly in wonderland.

This magical tale unfolds over 90 wordless minutes, and each of those minutes fills the viewer with amazement. I refrain here from describing too much, because I hope that many who read this will promptly obtain tickets to experience all the surprises in person. Those who have seen Bend’s previous works will not, however, be surprised to know that, for all its sweetness, If My Feet Have Lost the Ground is threaded with danger, pain and sorrow, as well as being punctuated with sly humor and layered with clever references. Torry Bend can elicit as much emotion with her objects as one would expect from live actors. You may find yourself crying for a puppet, and quivering with joy at this manifestation of the idea of the eternal return on the great wheel of life.

Sending love. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Sending love. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Part of the magic is made from Bend’s story and her extraordinary gift for visual storytelling, but a nearly equal portion is supplied by her collaborators in light and sound and puppetry. Raquel Salvatella de Prada and Jon Haas have created wonderful video that meshes with the physical world of Bend’s set, and Liz Droessler designed the additional lighting. Jil Christensen composed and designed an outstanding sound score that is crucial to our understanding of the flow of the action. Anna Nickles and Sarah Krainin designed and built Grace, and Jamie Bell, Drina Dunlap, Amanda Murray and Becky Woodrum activated the puppet and the moving scenery, as well as creating shadow actions. On the 17th, their concentration was exemplary, and they carried out the complex choreography with great skill and aplomb, nearly effacing themselves in their service to the objects.

Grace in motion. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Grace in motion. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Bend sees her stage/screen worlds and their characters from multiple points of view and at radically varying scales (again recalling Alice) and to transfer her inner vision to our eyes, she combines the newest technologies, like live video capture, with one of the oldest theatrical techniques–shadow casting. Her backdrop/screen is like a large cheval glass–a stand mirror on pivots–but made of steel and Plexiglas. Thus the surface of Grace’s world angles and flips, with video imagery slipping onto and over it, and moveable Plexi shelves appear, raise and lower according to the needs of the action. It’s incredibly complex. One of my personal favorite aspects of Bend’s work is her penchant for making objects (such as planes or trains) and layering video of the same thing over the object being manipulated by people. So we have a “toy” plane overlaid by an image of a “real” plane, yet the real plane that exists in our physical world is the artful toy being played through space by sentient humans.

The Water is Wide. "There is a ship and she sails the sea. She's loaded deep, as deep can be. But not so deep as the love I'm in, I know not how I sink or swim." Photo: Nick Graetz.

The Water is Wide. “There is a ship and she sails the sea. She’s loaded deep, as deep can be.
But not so deep as the love I’m in, I know not how I sink or swim.” Photo: Nick Graetz.

This beautiful, heart-full artwork was nurtured in The Process Series: New Works in Development at UNC-Chapel Hill, and produced for StreetSigns by Elisabeth Lewis Corley as part of Manbites Dog Theater‘s Other Voices Series. It plays at Manbites Dog through Nov. 1. The theater’s lobby gallery is showing related works by Ann Corley Silverman that are also worth your close attention. For tickets go here.

A New Play On An Old War: The ArtsCenter premieres commissioned work INTO THE BREACH

Opening tonight at the Carrboro ArtsCenter: INTO THE BREACH, Ian Bowater’s new play, commissioned by the ArtsCenter for its season examining World War I. Bowater, who is English and has had a long career in theatre and film, has crafted a thoughtful play centered on a group of “Shakespeare’s Boys” and their schoolmaster from Stratford-on-Avon, who all leap or are pulled into the vortex of the war.

Left to Right: Jeb Brinkley, Brandon Rafalson, Justin Johnson, Peter Vance, David Hudson portray men from Avon who take the one-way trip to war. Photo: courtesy of Jason Abide.

Left to Right: Jeb Brinkley, Brandon Rafalson, Justin Johnson, Peter Vance, David Hudson portray men from Avon who take the one-way trip to war.
Photo: courtesy of Jason Abide.

After Taylor Mac’s flippant brief gloss on WWI in his recent performance in Chapel Hill, Bowater’s play is refreshingly serious. Its characters are more types than individuals (I saw a dress rehearsal), but they are real types (including the very English proto-Nazi), and through them we can glimpse the way those types both shape and are shaped by large historical forces. They are the men–the glorious dead–whose names etch memorials in every English village and town, and in towns all over the then far-flung British Empire.

The boys studied and played Shakespeare’s Henry V at school, and in this play, they study it again as they prepare a show for the other men at a hospital not far from the battlefront. The play reveals different things to the men now, and they find the leaden tones along with the golden in the great speeches, as they grapple with the (im-)morality of Realpolitik. They are joined by Laurel Ullman as Nurse Ailey/the Angel of Mons.

Director Gregor McElvogue, also British, brings his skill at eliciting both the brutish and the bruised from the performers, and with his usual careful reserve, gives us a fresh context for the war that did not end all wars. The waste of that war becomes more poignant and pitiful when we see it driven (in part) by the pride of “the men of Agincourt,” “the band of brothers,” who had so recently celebrated the harvest with song and beer.

The big surprise of the show is the songs. The cast does a wonderful job, from the harvest songs to popular ditties (inky-dinky parlez-vous!), and the song and dance routines make the pall all the darker in contrast.

The show runs Oct. 10-12 and 16-19.

Was there a point? Taylor Mac at Carolina Performing Arts

New York theatre artist Taylor Mac is in town again. I had high hopes for this show, but they were soon dashed. I’d seen Mac at PRC2 a few years ago in a one-man show that indicated his talents but was far too self-indulgent; I’d seen him do a really excellent interpretation of the emcee in PlayMakers’ Cabaret. I thought, based on those experiences, that this one-man show, with band, would be really interesting. I stayed for the whole thing, but nothing interesting happened.

Taylor Mac wears a different outfit for his CPA performance. The hat is much much bigger. Photo: Ves Pitts.

Taylor Mac wears a different outfit for his CPA performance. The hat is much much bigger.          Photo: Ves Pitts.

Mac is in Chapel Hill for a two-night run at Carolina Performing Arts of one section of his very long work purporting to present–then deconstruct the shit out of (quote)–key popular music in the US, decade by decade, from 1776 on. The current show covers the 1910s. Between songs, Mac tosses off snippets of comically simplistic history–so simplistic as to be dangerous.

How is it even possible for a politically activist artist to bring up the 1910s without mentioning the Suffragist movement and its songs?  (The influenza pandemic that came on the heels of WWI didn’t get a notice, either.)  Mac spent a considerable time on how the US population turned from isolationist to war-ready, but not one word for our sisters in white who used their backing of the US entry into to the war as the final lever to force President Wilson into supporting women’s full citizenship. Not. One. Word. And you know, I’d bet money that there were bull dykes among them–Taylor Mac’s “favorite people in the world!”

That I could hear to understand even this much of the performance on Oct. 1 was due to the fact that I moved from a close seat, to mid-house, and finally to the back rows. The sound mix was terrible, with the band (which was very good, when one wasn’t struggling to understand lyrics) overriding Mac on every song. Mac’s voice was rough–it sounded like he’d had a bad cold and hadn’t recovered his range. He consistently torched out his microphone by substituting volume for nuance, which just made for a rocky slurry of sound, unmitigated by the sound board operator. The only songs I could get every word of were sung by the un-miked UNC Clef Hangers, who assisted in a couple of the skits.

The piece is performance art, no doubt about that. Somewhere in its tedious length, Taylor Mac asserts that unlike other performance types, performance art is always a success, simply because it happens. I cannot agree. Taylor Mac also claims to be “fostering community” with the puerile audience participation stunts that form a crucial part of his performance. And he uses the horrible trendy word “agency.”

That’s problematic, sweetheart, as Mac might say.

On the plus side, what Mac doesn’t know about make-up, sequins and glitz is not worth knowing. Mac’s costuming is also fantastic, and offers much pleasure. He’s got great legs.

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