The times, they aren’t a‑changin’

Applied Mechanics presents This Is on Record’

3 minute read
In 1968, "it was never this bad, it was always this bad." (Photo courtesy of Applied Mechanics.)
In 1968, "it was never this bad, it was always this bad." (Photo courtesy of Applied Mechanics.)

In its devised work This Is on Record, Applied Mechanics creates a gorgeously curated living museum of grassroots American expression and the media that make that expression possible. Characters speak across the decades from 1968, 1988, and 2014, tying our present suffering to those who have come before. It is a vital work and a triumph of craft.

With her evocative installations, Lisi Stoessel transforms the Glass Factory into a series of small, gallery-like areas, each anchored in its time by media artifacts such as VHS tapes, eight-tracks, records, or handbills. Audience members are free to walk throughout the space experiencing these gorgeous collages, examining artifacts created by detail-obsessed props designer Emily Schuman, and overhearing the characters to whom they belong.

Media circus

The retro appeal of the times these characters inhabit offers considerable opportunity for exaggeration or camp, which the team resists. The characters look like they have fallen out of candid photographs, as Jill Keys dresses rather than costumes them. Tiny (Thomas Choinacky) wears 1988 hemmed cutoff shorts and graphic T-shirt that particularly indicate accuracy and restraint.

Elizabeth Atkinson’s sound design is invisibly powerful. Microphones and speakers seamlessly integrated throughout the design shift emphasis and draw audience members toward important action gently, never yanking focus from one place to another.

So much of the magic of this piece is invisible; it’s a precisely engineered freedom that winks at its subject. The topic of media and who controls it is about attention, and the attention of patrons is necessarily divided. Each time we choose to listen to her and not him, look at this rather than that, we participate in the play’s reflection on who is heard and how. Unseen forces contrive to push us towards conflict or charisma or beauty.

Anything's possible

This ensemble consists of deeply committed, talented performers with physical discipline and commitment to character. Alison Ormbsy’s idealistic 1968 folk singer, Alison, and Brett Ashley Robinson’s 1988 radio DJ, Ledisi, reveal the uniquely female space between passionate idealism and painful self-doubt and stay far from the trap of caricature. Anita Holland’s subtle Dora is reticent, with a vibrating inner life. Annie Wilson (Drew) is painfully human — awkward and heroic all at once. Tiny and Aaron (Daniel Park) unfold their personal stories carefully, like love letters.

This masterpiece of moving parts comes together under the skilled hand of director Rebecca Wright. Each meticulously crafted piece fits together with unerring precision. Not one moment, not one inch is uncared for. Stories overlap at just the right interval to create a sense of cohesive movement and, at any point in the show, each element feeds back to the larger whole. This movement between the big and small makes room for deep emotional reflection.

With small, specific vignettes, the play reminds us that while it has never been this bad, it has always been this bad. “I actually have to say ‘President Nixon.’ I can’t believe that’s possible,” white activist Alison tells Dora (Anita Holland), who’s black. “Anything’s possible,” says Dora. And the beat goes on.

Applied Mechanics has created for us the kind of art that can define and transform the Trump era. No agitprop, This is on Record is successful political art because it is as universal as it is specific. It creates a context from which to look at our political moment that can offer comfort without betraying the reality of our despair. As the sound of the projectors winds down and we’re left in the silence of now with the echoes of always, it’s clear. This work matters.

What, When, Where

This is on Record. By Applied Mechanics, Rebecca Wright directed. Through July 1, 2018, at the Glass Factory, 1517 N. Bailey Street, Philadelphia.

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