Where are we?

Philly Fringe 2019: The Wilma The­ater presents There’

In
3 minute read
Is the human connection there? The HotHouse ensemble in ‘There.’ (Photo by Johanna Austin; austinart.org.)
Is the human connection there? The HotHouse ensemble in ‘There.’ (Photo by Johanna Austin; austinart.org.)

From the minds of co-creators Blanka Zizka and visual artist Rosa Barba springs The Wilma Theater’s first show of the season, There, a new performative adaptation of Etal Adnan’s long-form poem, There In the Light and Darkness of the Self and of the Other. Experimental and enigmatic, it’s a prime choice for the company’s offering for the curated Philadelphia Fringe Festival.

Predictability without answers

The piece begins with a simple question posed in the dark: “Where are we?” We remain in the darkness for an extended time as more questions cascade, but answers are not offered even as the lights rise. For the next hour the actors and their accompanying musicians above on the catwalk move through the pared-down poem, alternating between vignettes with the onstage actors and music breaks with music director and sound designer Alex Dowling and his cohort of singers (Liz Filios, Emma O’Halloran, and Brenson Thomas) performing his electro-futuristic compositions. The haunting music pairs nicely with the visual landscape.

Zizka and Barba seem taken with liminality and the extremes of fluctuations. They play with shadowy mystery before highlighting actors with onstage moveable spotlights operated by stagehands (lights by Thom Weaver). The actors skitter across and slide down the giant half-pipe stage, speaking sections of the poem in a conversational manner before hungrily climbing up the pipe doused in red light, like a pack of determined dogs. The movement language Zizka has created is fascinating, which helps keep the piece from being too stagnant—however, the overall format does tend towards predictability over time.

The human connection

There is an ambitious endeavor by the company, because Adnan’s poetry, as earthy and intimate as it is, defies easy understanding. It is wild and untamable. Though the company resists putting a hard-and-fast meaning on the words, the staging still has the effect of trying to trap fireflies in a jar—we get the intermittent flashes of something pleasurable, but what happens to the creature that’s been caged?

In this instance, the emotional impact is hampered. Hearing Adnan’s words out loud in the stylized interpretation is like listening to songs in a language you don’t speak—there is a lack of literal understanding, but there is the opportunity for connection if the melody hits you just right. However, the company’s pulling apart and reconfiguring of the poem, though fastidious and devotional in the process, results in a piece that alienates rather than brings its audiences in. It’s beautiful to look at, but the human-to-human connection that Adnan cries out for is out of the play’s reach.

A palpable zeal for the work: Ross Beschler in ‘There.’ (Photo by Johanna Austin; austinart.org.)
A palpable zeal for the work: Ross Beschler in ‘There.’ (Photo by Johanna Austin; austinart.org.)

Four years in

The HotHouse ensemble represented in the piece, Krista Apple, Taysha Canales, Ross Beschler, Justin Jain, Melanye Finister, Sarah Gliko, Brett Robinson, and Matteo Scammell devour and embody the text with fervor. Whether writhing on the ground or silently expressing existential agita while calmly cutting a tomato, the cast’s zeal and love for the work is palpable at every turn. Particularly engaging is Apple, whose impassioned delivery of a section of the poem momentarily pierces through the overall distancing aesthetic.

It should be acknowledged that There holds clear significance for the Wilma. In his program notes, company dramaturg Walter Bilderback, who edited Adnan’s text along with Zizka, states “THERE was the very first text we explored with the Wilma HotHouse company, four years ago this month.” Etal Adnan’s words have lived in the minds and bodies of the company for nearly half a decade, with this final push of music and design coming together to put the epic poem up on its feet.

Such sustained examination by a company is rare, but the company’s efforts here mystify Adnan more than they illuminate.

What, When, Where

There. By Etal Adnan, co-created by Blanka Zizka and Rosa Barba in collaboration with the Wilma HotHouse. Through September 22, 2019, at the Wilma Theater, 265 Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 546-7824 or wilmatheater.org.

The Wilma Theater is an ADA-compliant venue. There will be an open-captioned performance of ‘There’ on Sunday, September 22 at 2pm.

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