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Ninth Planet Productions categorizes itself as a feminist performance platform and explores theater outside known and familiar spaces. With Sam Tower's Homeworld, a "performance installation for babies and their caregivers," they’ve created an extraordinary theatrical experience.
Few theater events limit what sort of people can be in the audience, but Homeworld's charms are specifically intended for babies, accompanied by a loving adult or two. That a childless fellow like me was allowed to witness Homeworld was an exception and an honor.
The hourlong experience begins with an orientation by actor Hannah Gold. Caregivers receive guidelines: all are encouraged to explore and play, they can exit at any time, childcare is provided for older siblings, all must remove their shoes, and there are no seats.
Next, everyone gathers in the Painted Bride's small dance studio, on a rug outside the playing area, and introduces themselves. The intimacy of set designer Tess Kunik's soft, warm bubble insists that only five or six babies plus their adults can participate, so it helps for the audience to become comfortable together.
Audience members enter a gauzy white round tent with a padded white floor. Plush objects suggest a coral reef, a giant clam, and other undersea treasures. Light-up jellyfish and a plant hang above, surprises that are unfurled later. Everything is textured and touchable. Angela Myers's delicate lighting provides color and variety.
Three performers — Kunik, Nia Benjamin, and Eliana Fabiyi — wear white pajama pants and powder-blue shirts and blend in with the scenery at first, emerging gradually. They make cooing and clicking pre-language noises and move with measured grace, seldom standing, never crowding anyone.
Steve Hayward's original music, augmented with Adriano Shaplin's sound effects, create a soothing background with piano and human voices (but no words) and enticing water sounds. Calm and safety are paramount as both babies and adults watch cautiously at first. Gentle encouragement leads them, each at their own pace, to interact with the performers and soft set pieces.
Benjamin, Fabiyi, and Kunik's performances are fascinating from a theatrical perspective. While choreographed and cued by music and sound changes, they constantly adjust to their unpredictable, curious, and mobile audience. Though definite movements and ideas emerge, the performers are comfortable with the responsibility of moment-to-moment awareness.
Homeworld isn't just an ethereal and artsy play session; it shares an intriguing story that guides its audience with focused whimsy.
Tower and company studied and experimented to provide an encounter with art that would engage babies and provide a unique family experience. (For details about their process, read Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer's preview.)
Places like theaters and restaurants often shun babies, so adults seeking cultural experiences must scramble to find care for their little ones, often at great expense. Homeworld includes them.
What, When, Where
Homeworld. Conceived and directed by Sam Tower. Ninth Planet Productions. Through October 14, 2018, at the Painted Bride Arts Center, 230 Vine Street, Philadelphia. (215) 925-9914 or paintedbride.org.
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