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Some of my favorite Fringe Festival events include an element of audience participation, and Asimina Chremos’s The Engine is no exception. Armed with our cell phones and earbuds, an opening-night audience gathered at the Noble Street entrance to the Rail Park, where we were given the code to a SoundCloud. After a brief history of the space from free-flowing stream to park, the "conductor" (Wendy Bell) told us to pick up one of several white suitcases set beside a tree.
I almost balked, because I was already juggling my phone. But once my fingers wrapped around the handle, and with the sound of a train filling my head from Tara Middleton’s soundscape, all those trips to Washington and New York came alive in muscle memory. I was hooked.
With the rest of the small audience (limited to 15), I climbed the graveled ramp and trudged through the Rail Park to the performance space, where porters collected our bags. We shuffled onto a long bench and waited. Gradually we became aware of Chremos, the dancer. Dressed in black, with a red strip down her back and black elbow-length gloves, she walked slowly toward us with a lamp at waist height and her arms arched over her head, her hands pointing down over her face. The train was heading into the station.
Over our earphones, Middleton intoned Chremos’s poem: “What if you only went forward . . . what if you were indestructible?” The lines, repeated over and over in Middleton’s rich voice, blended hypnotically with the sounds of the train, so that we could almost believe Chremos was the engine, with fire inside of her.
When she reached the end of the park, her dance was more forceful than elegant, which seemed appropriate to the piece. She stripped off her black gloves to reveal red ones underneath and held up shadow cutouts (created by Erik Ruin), so that her light cast the shape of a tunnel on the white suitcases while the soundscape called off the stations. She departed as slowly as she had entered, the engine leaving the station one last time.
The showtime, just after dusk, gave an otherworldly feel to the Rail Park, adding to the sense that we had moved into another time, when trains still ran those tracks. More down to earth, I was pleased to note that, even in a small outdoor group, the audience wore masks. It seems that some Philadelphians have adapted to the fact that we can have nice things, like Fringe Festival performances, if we will just behave in a civilized manner toward each other.
What, When, Where
Engine. By Asimina Chremos. $20 (tickets sold out). Through September 21, 2021, at the Rail Park’s Noble Street entrance in Philadelphia's Callowhill neighborhood. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.
Entrance to the performance is by ramp, which is wheelchair accessible, but the audience walks on a gravel path that may be difficult to navigate for some.
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