No seats, no intermission, no boundaries

Amanda Burr

The chaos was deafening: Video images poured onto four screens, actors raced in and around each other, increasingly loud discordant sounds screamed from all sides. Suddenly, hundreds of door keys fell into a porcelain bathtub three feet from where I was standing. And then, silence.

This was only one of many provocative climaxes in the Plasticene Physical Theater Company’s innovative new work, “and so I may return,” playing through March 16 at The Viaduct Theater at 3111 N. Western Ave.

Standing in the lounge of The Viaduct anticipating the performance, I had no idea what to expect. A few minutes after 8 p.m., a man dressed in all black and wearing a headset emerged from the theater and informed the crowd that we would be led inside in groups of eight.

“There are no seats and no rules about how to watch this show,” he said. “We only ask that you respect the actors’ props and space.” Now prepared for something entirely out of the ordinary, I joined seven others in the first group and walked into a dark vestibule. For what seemed like forever, we stood in the dark, waiting. It felt like an amusement park ride where the bottom drops out when you least expect it. And in some ways, it did.

The “theater” was unlike any space in which I’ve ever seen a performance. A large, dark room, four screens and two levels of scaffolding created a kind of central performance space. In corners outside of the space, six actors were in their own worlds as we entered the theater. Moody, dark music filled my ears.

I wandered from one space to the next, watching as the actors went about their own actions. One man, seated at a huge oak table, obsessively smoothed a gum wrapper. The woman in the next space, dressed in a red chemise and one black shoe, squatted on a box and thrust a knife into a board while muttering to herself in English and German. It was the freak show at the circus.

After 15 minutes, the entire audience had entered the room. Standing, leaning and kneeling, we were waiting for something to happen. Huddled around a table in the central space, the actors frantically pieced together a puzzle. The video screens flashed on offering us an overhead view. The actors pulled away and we saw “and so I may return” on the puzzle. Ah, the opening credits.

Now the show begins, I thought to myself.

But the show is not what my traditionally trained mind wanted it to be. There is no discernable plot. The actors pair off – two same-sex pairs and one male-female couple – but their relationships are never incredibly clear.

There are always at least three scenes occurring simultaneously – some on video as well as in the performance space. There is very little language but rather a lot of noise. And words that are spoken aren’t always audible, or English, for that matter. I often felt somewhat schizophrenic.

The audience plays an incredible part in “and so I may return.” There are no boundaries, no rules, so audience members frequently find themselves inches away from the action. At first, I couldn’t always remember who was an actor and who wasn’t. It was brilliant. The implication of the audience, the juxtaposition of simultaneously watching and being watched, was a bold exploration of the fine line between performance and real life. After all, wasn’t I performing the ever-present character, “audience member”?

As the show plowed forward, I found myself wanting to find the meaning, the plot and the structure. But it was not given to me. I walked away with an incredible feeling of catharsis: All the stress of my life floated away on the wings of actors exploring what it is to be human and relate to other humans.

I have no idea what “and so I may return” is about. But I do know that it is deep, intense, beautiful and disturbing. It is a theater experience like no other. It is modern art in action. See it, but be prepared to be dumped outside the box.

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