Automatic Arts presents Josh McIlvain’s ‘Slideshow’

A living room epic

Theatergoers of a certain age surely remember relatives sharing vacation photos in slide shows, and the jokes about how tedious they were. Writer-performer Josh McIlvain does, but makes his Slideshow a fascinating fictional history of long-ago road trips and family gatherings as his 1950s through 1970s character travels the world in search of himself.

A scene from McIlvain's magical mystery/personal history tour. (Photo by Josh McIlvain)

It's easy to forget, during his 75-minute solo performance, that this innovative and absorbing work stems from strangers's old slides stitched together by McIlvain's clever, seemingly rambling, off-the-cuff commentary. It's a great idea, executed skillfully.

Coming to a living room near you

While I saw Slideshow at Moving Arts in Mount Airy, it belongs in (and often plays in) private homes with people crammed together to watch. McIlvain props up an old slide projector with a stack of books and unfurls a portable screen. He uses a remote to switch slides — a remote on a cable, as such things worked circa 1978 — and passes a bowl of popcorn and cans of beer. He plays cassette tapes on the sort of player we called small back then, the size of a 500-page hardcover book.

At first, it's fun that he identifies every stray person captured in faded Kodachrome as a cousin or neighbor, and shows a series of bizarre candids that supposedly document a family tradition of cross-dressing on wedding anniversaries. I haven't seen so many middle-aged men in Bermuda shorts, high socks, and sandals since I was a kid. Inevitably, one slide is upside down. It's all very amusing and, for us of a certain age, warmly nostalgic.

And then it gradually morphs into this amazing story.

McIlvain's little anecdotes grow more and more bizarre, particularly his character's father's "weird drunk Christmas confession" about meeting a celebrity. Amid shots of his parents and other relatives posing at landmarks as "classic American tourists" — and his habit of wracking his brain to identify a location, then finding it clearly marked by a sign in the next picture — a larger tale emerges.

An existential journey

Sometimes the details seem like a reach in order to justify an unusual photo, as when he captions one shot with: "I parlayed my water skiing skills into a career at Sea World," but they're so cleverly connected that we accept them. Some slides tinged green (probably from bad lighting or age) are explained as a drug-enhanced adventure. Relationships and jobs come and go as he knits together increasingly random pictures: views from airplane windows, bridges, bison — and wait, was that one Dachau? The performance is a brilliant exercise in connecting dots that lead McIlvain's unnamed character on an epic journey with several loves. "If you don't belong where you come from," he asks us rhetorically, "where do you belong?"

By the end of Slideshow, we don't feel that stultifying boredom everyone used to joke about. Instead, we really feel like we've really been somewhere. Somewhere weird and wonderful. 

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