SoLow Festival and Automatic Arts’ ‘All on 1’

Four in 1

Without much fanfare, the SoLow Festival creeps up on the city annually like an eerie fog of performance: here a wisp, there a wisp. Performance artists Thomas Choinacky and Amanda Grove devised the series of self-presented solo shows eight years ago and have since handed it off to other organizers. Original and experimental works based on this year’s theme, “Fight or Flight,” take place in all sorts of venues, from private kitchens and basements to parks and storefront galleries all around town. Hospitality consists of serve-yourself chilled beverages on offer.

Harry Watermeier in Sarah Knittel's 'The Diviner.' (Photo by Fred Brown.)

All in four

The former Smokey Scout Productions, founded by actor/writer/director Josh McIlvain and producer Deborah Crocker, is renamed Automatic Arts. They produced the opening show, All on 1, which is composed of four loosely linked talk and movement pieces at the two-room PII Gallery in Old City.

McIlvain opened with dance-in-place gestural performance that began in the abstract but became more concrete as the quotidian gestures gained recognizability – eating, sleeping, turning over in bed, strangling himself.

Then he turned troubadour, strumming a child-sized guitar and luring the audience from the rear room to the front space, both lined with famous Polish poster art that screamed “theater.” There, Harry Watermeier go-go danced in the gallery window, with passersby gawking. Watermeier jumped down to crouch and confront us as he expertly channeled Sarah Knittel’s harrowing The Diviner, about a half-mad, half-drunk young man who finds himself alone in the desert. Eyes blackened as if back from the dead, he told us about how scorpions come back to life after they've been frozen, then knelt before a man, recalling a night of wild lust: “We sent ourselves into a storm cloud.”

Wyl McCaul and Sophia Barrett in 'MAKING the WORLD a BETTER PLACE through MURALS.' (Photo by Said Johnson.)
Wyl McCaul and Sophia Barrett in 'MAKING the WORLD a BETTER PLACE through MURALS.' (Photo by Said Johnson.)

Of 'Mice' and men

The final performance, Mice, also took place in the front room. “A man’s attempt to make sense of the world,” it was written and directed by McIlvain as a soliloquy for Joshua Millhouse. On feeling trapped like a mouse in a maze by the things we have, it was too old a trope to tarry on for so long.

McIlvain sandwiched the meatiest part of the evening between those two performances. Written and directed by him, MAKING the WORLD a BETTER PLACE through MURALS is not a solo but a duet, performed by actors Sophia Barrett and Wyl McCaul. Once more in the rear room, the two sipped water while seated behind a folding table, set up for a community meeting about a new mural, and mordantly offered compelling reasons why murals do not make a difference in the communities they grace (or disgrace):

“Giant humanoids look down on potholed streets.”

“An apple so big it would feed the neighborhood.” And yet the children who see it have no access to a real one.

The “Mural Guru” argued that each new mural begins a conversation. McCaul said he regretted his role in painting them.

They asked, “How many new conversations can you make over 20 years” without any positive results? It’s a question I ask myself each time I see one of those often ghastly works. They remind me of driving the Bronx Expressway and seeing boarded-up windows painted with curtains and geraniums. This little piece could grow into a much larger one, beginning a conversation on why the city spends so much on an essentially useless activity that benefits a few instead of bettering the neighborhoods. Now that may be the art that makes a change.

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