Posted by: strugglesome | June 25, 2010

I Will Survive: Tips on getting through it all from SwimPony’s Survive!

Call me crazy, but I always enjoy it when a play leads me down a dark creepy alley of no return. Usually I mean metaphorically, of course, but in the case of SwimPony‘s Survive, an original work and SwimPony’s first work as an established performance company, directed by Adrienne Mackey and written by Tim Sawicki.  I happen to be speaking literally as well. Entering the basement of the Wolf Building at 12th just below Callowhill will take you down an almost cinemagraphically awkward alley, filled with building materials and, if you are lucky, shady men taking shady things out of shady trucks (can you tell I got lucky?). That’s just the beginning, of course, because having traversed the ally you must do battle with a heavy iron gate, descend an set of stairs that look like a lawsuit waiting to happen and enter a basement decorated in the latest industrial-chic fashion. This is, by the way, all before you’ve signed the waver. Now, I’m all for new and exciting experiences, but that seems a little excessive, don’t you think? But guess I wouldn’t be seeing theater if I wasn’t aware that some liability could be involved.

Having signed my “I promise not to sue you” papers and handed over my bike helmet and bag to a delightful southern gentleman, I waited with the rest of the audience in what appeared to be some sort of laboratory/botanical garden/serial-killer’s lair. Milling about in a cement room decorated with green netting, fake spanish moss and signs imploring me “Please do not feed the plants” I considered whether the surival aspect of the evening would be a man vs. plant style thing, something like Little Shop of Horrors meets Monday Night Wrestling.  My sick sense of what entertainment means was destined to be disappointed, however, as my fellow spectators and I were lead from Dr. Kavorikian’s living room into a the mothership of the show, or Ama the hub, as our talkative little set cum field Marshal seemed to want to be referred to. Seated in completely white room with plastic draping creating hallways out, watching lights flicker and gobos create 1970’s style geometric shapes and patterns on the floor, all one could think was “Holy Ray Bradbury, Batman, I wonder if the Doctor will be showing up!”. But instead of the last of the Time Lords, I got instead four scientists, or rather,  four people re-enacting four scientists discussing, in 1972, a message they plan to send out into space. The message? We are humanity, and we are here. While the message itself seems simple enough, our intrepid little group of eggheads is having a bit of trouble with the medium.  In the midst of an escalating argument which tosses around questions about language, representation, the futility of sending out messages into space in the first place, and most importantly, whether a message is for the recipient or the sender, our sole female avatar, ably and adorably played by Jamie McKittrick,  gives us an answer, or at least, a way to start asking the right kind of questions on the subject when she says “That [the message? the act of sending a message? the universe?] is infinity. You’re never doing to be ready for infinity”.

And so begins our journey into the infinite, as the show switches gears from historical re-enactment to a fun-house inside a variety-show inside a class on string theory and modern physics. Powering down, our scientists strip off their lab coats and become, as the voice of Ama informs the audience, fractals. This is possibly the most interesting conceit of a show filled with conceits, that is the subversion of the concept of projection or refraction. In other works one might be shown a projected image and asked to connect with it the way you would a person. In this piece we were shown four real people and asked to connect with them the way we would an image. ” Do not get attached or romantically grapple with a fractal” warned our digital caregiver, “You will only get hurt!”. While most pieces let the audience discover the rules and regulations of a space and the world established within it,  Survive! is more intent on controlling the experience of the audience, directing them on the way this particular game needs to be played.  In a move deeply reminiscent of Pig Iron’s 2006 Fringe Show Pay Up, at Ama’s emission of a sound and a color the audience is allowed to choose one of four directions leading away from the hub to a node, inhabited by a fractal. Having witnessed the respective fractal’s schpeel, the audience is then summoned back to the hub for another scene/lecture/combination of fractals moving through space, and then asked to divide itself into different groups and sent through the tunnels of plastic sheeting and Christmas lights again, free to choose a new fractal to witness or the same,  should entropy so demand it. With some minor alterations this is the basic format of the work, which in theory allows the audience to choose their own adventure in space travel, sort of like an episode of Stargate SG1 but without the ancient Egyptian references.

While I can talk about the choices I made, I can tell you that my various encounters with entropy brought me face to face with a manic if charming fractal named Weave (perfectly played by David Sweeny of Johnny Showcase fame)  who, using strings, bullets and upside down chairs attached to the walls (courtesy of set designer Lisi Stoessel),  wanted to teach me all about how “time isn’t linear, that’s just how it’s perceived”. After a some more time in the hub watching a demonstration on how Schrodinger’s Cat works,  I then watched McKittrick as Kinetic Girl, decked in American Apparel’s most outrageously neon concoctions, tap dance with herself and discuss moving forward in time in the 4th dimension even when we are standing still. Bradley K Warren’s Gentle Scientist told me about perception and perspective in the most melancholic way possible, and I missed Ahren Potratz’  Sand and whatever lesson there was to be learned from him, which is a shame, I suppose, but you can’t fight entropy, apparently.

Like a science lab itself, this piece seemed to be an experiment in progress, and like all experiments some of the results with positive and some of them wont. In a play so saturated with intellectual meanderings, which also relies so heavily on the frame, when that frame goes awry the experience feels less like a revelation and more like an exam. Questions that begin as fascinating investigating into the mysteries of the universe become heavy handed anvils if you ask them too many times, and there is a fine line between repetition which expresses theme, and repetition ad nauseum. Because this play rests on so many conceits and gimmicks when one fails to work or goes on for too long, for example, the moment in which one part of the audience is used to shout the last word of one of the actors sentences, tucked out of sight of the other part of the audience, the sense of movement in an already deeply heady progression is stagnated. That being said, when the gimmick works, it really works, like the stunningly beautiful moment in which we were lead into a darkened room aglow with small white lights reflecting on mirrors, creating then sense of the infinite abyss of space as Wrenn gently murmured to us about seeing and perspective.

In the end, this play feels like a large handful of experiences and experiments, rather then a finished product. But perhaps that was the goal. After all, as the Scientists discuss whoever will be receiving this “message” out into the universe they postulate”

-Well, even if they do pick it up, they probably wont understand it.

-I hope they try!

-I think they will.

-Either way, it’s pretty exciting.

You’ll get no arguments from me on that score. In it’s best moments,  SwimPony’s Survive sure as hell is exciting.

SwimPony has finished their run of Survive, but you can check out their company and plans for the future here.



  1. this makes me want to see it! the website has only this one show….will they be at the Fringe/Live Arts?

  2. I don’t know! I don’t think so, but the program said they had a reading set for next spring (groan!) so I guess we have to wait. Want to be my date?

  3. […] SwimPony’s Survive, which literally had the EXACT SAME PREMISE, but a completely different execution. I’m not saying Reuben and Aggrocrag appropriated the plot line from SwimPony or vice versa, […]

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