Posted by: strugglesome | September 15, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau: Applied Mechanics Presents Overseers

One of my favorite things about the Philadelphia Live Arts/Fringe Festival is how dangerous it is. Oh, I don’t mean artistically, though that’s certainly true, but physically. In a mid-size city housing over 200 shows for a two-week period at least a few of those productions are  bound to be in the wilds of Fishtown, or Newbold, or even, horror of horrors, West Philadelphia! So any way you slice it, your time spent in shady buildings trying to enjoy a performance while clutching your mace is going to be disproportionately high this time of year. Of course, you can also compound the issue by walking 5 blocks in the wrong direction, as I did when trying to find which of the many warehouses dotting Washington Avenue West was housing Applied Mechanics’ Overseers. But I wouldn’t recommend it.

Rest assured, however, that I did make it to the correct warehouse, eventually, and found myself graciously welcomed, handed a bottle of water and a Popsicle and motioned towards the entrance of the playing space. Once there, I joined the crowd of people wandering around the large warehouse space and waiting for the show to officially start (it’s an ambulatory piece in which the audience follows various characters around the space, Medieval Christian theater is quite the theme this year!) As I did so I observed the mental-hospital green wood walls and the intriguing little stations and locations that make up Maria Shaplin’s excellent set and lighting design. The devil may be in the details, but delight lives there too, because each space Shaplin has created is as specific as its residents. We have the Pulpit of Pater Baruch Erleichda (Kristen Baily), especially proportioned for her immense height (thanks to silts, which she moves in better than most people do in sneakers). Dr. Margot Hesper (Mary Tuomanen) is given a tree house-style laboratory complete with hanging apothecary jars and futuristic blood containers and a slide projector for studying possible contagion. Tristan Schwa (Thomas Choinacky), the nonconformist artist, gets a neat little set of stairs that can become a bedroom, a studio or a party, whatever he prefers. Government stooges “L” (John Jarboe) huddles behind his desk, makes announcements and hands out permits (if everything is in order, of course) while newcomer Luisa (Jessica Hurely) dwells in a series of stacked platforms. It may not be much, but it’s home! Dressed in white burlap-looking utilitarian garments (I guess in the future we are just going to make one decision about color and stick with it, Color Me Beautiful be damned) these five characters make up a society, an entire miniature world, like a terrarium inside a closed glass container. But if one plant or person decides to break out, what happens to the rest of them? Can anyone really remain an individual inside a locked room? Is it true that “A Citizen’s duties are more important than it’s rights”? And who makes miracles happen, gods above or revolutions below?

Each little space established in the larger environment carves out a niche, creating destinations, focal points for action and critical information. Sometimes. Because an issue that emerges when you have a piece in which you pick a character and follow them about, or drift from storyline to storyline, is that the dissemination of important information becomes a challenge. The goal of performances like this is that everyone has a different experience, but everyone has the same fundamental understanding of what’s happening here. So the events are the same, you just see them from a different perspective. But insuring that that happens is difficult, as is distinguishing between the moments where the audience can scatter and the moments in which each spectator needs to be witnessing the same things. And when there are so many things happening at once it can be hard to understand what you really need to know. In a piece that includes  the threat of a deadly illness, the struggle of an individual artist versus the conformity of a bureaucratic system, a love story, a religious crisis, and several dance breaks, all enacted quietly and in a way that is the opposite of epic, getting everything you need to understand the final moments of the piece isn’t exactly an easy task. But that’s theater for you. If you’re not working for it, you probably aren’t doing it right.

Overseers takes its audience many places. To a large warehouse, a garden of dead things, a party, a revolution, a religious revelation and the office of the interior exterior identity. It offers us water and beer, gin and cake, it warns us of death and destruction, it lets us celebrate “Potentsday” with it, and it does it all so casually, so quietly, that it almost seems everyday. People conflict, they have anxiety, stress and concern, they worry about the future and the actions of the unseen all-powerful Body Official, but none of these things seems quite real, or quite dangerous. Each performance is compelling, interesting, articulate and sympathetic, and mysterious, but without a real mystery to solve. It’s like a series of clues for a scavenger hunt, only there is no final prize, no ultimate solution or answer or conclusion. Just laughter, and an urge to see what has been created. Which is a lot like life, if you think about it, no matter how much we might crave more danger and more finality in performance. Well, as we are told, “Considering how dangerous everything is, nothing is very frightening now, is it?” It’s rather scary, because it’s true.

Applied Mechanic’s Overseers has finished its run but you can find out more about the company here.

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