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Physical theater artist Nick Gillette, a co-founder of Almanac Dance Circus Theatre and Philly improv scene veteran, brings Reception, his latest original, interactive show, to this year’s Cannonball Festival. Reception is an enjoyable improv theater experience with an interesting science-fiction concept that could have made a stronger impact with a bit more sculpting.
In Gillette’s new universe, the first recorded interstellar object was spotted near our sun and then changed course and disappeared, leaving behind a psychic tether in the form of a brain tumor between Nick, Gillette’s Reception alter-ego, and an alien consciousness. Gillette tells us this in a conspiratorial hush, with brief audio-visual support. There are a few short musical interludes that will bring a smile to anyone who is a fan of shows like Doctor Who.
The performance begins suddenly as Gillette enters with a length of tinfoil, creating a path that he can walk on until he arrives center stage. He wears slightly bedraggled clothes, with a haphazardly affixed bandage around his head of shaggy hair. He moves with fearless physicality, especially when he runs out of tinfoil wrap and must extend his range of motion. He addresses the audience in character to make sure that cell phones are off and put away, which feeds nicely into his character’s paranoid skittishness about technology.
Because this is an improv experience, Gillette addresses the crowd throughout the show, but this proves to be the show’s greatest weakness. From what we see of the lore and backstory, there is an insightful and thought-provoking idea here, but it is dependent on how Gillette engages with the crowd.
At a designated time, Nick’s persona disappears and is replaced by the Alien, speaking through Nick’s body. Gillette accomplishes this by shedding his bulky sweater, bandages, and wig to reveal a bald head and a hospital gown. Nick vanishes into this new entity, and that change is remarkable. The Alien persona charmingly subverts our expectations of a psychic voice from on high, referring to himself as “some guy” who hangs out with “the guys.”
In the early improvised scenes of the performance I attended, Gillette offered a few quips in character which elicited laughter. They just didn’t seem to go anywhere. Questions about the origin of the object or of the Alien were met with vague non-answers. Intriguing ideas about connection were introduced but not fully explored. Gillette asked for questions, but didn’t really build on what the audience asked. At one point he sat in the audience to “wait” for whatever we’re waiting for before meandering to the next cue.
The most poignant part of the performance was when he took the hand of an audience member and recited a beautiful metaphor for life that resurfaced at the end of the show. It was a lovely moment, but would have benefitted from a stronger connection to the rest of the piece.
In the post-show talk-back, Gillette spoke about the mind canon and lore he had created for this Alien character. I would have loved to hear him incorporate more of this in his answers to the crowd during the performance, and maybe he will as the run continues. Overall, Reception is definitely worth a look, and the beauty of this performance is that it’ll change with each new audience.
What, When, Where
Reception. Created and directed by Nick Gillette. $20. Through September 25, 2022, at the MAAS Building Studio, 1325 North Randolph Street, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.
Cannonball Festival shows require proof of Covid-19 vaccination, and masks inside the theater.
The MAAS Building Studio is accessible only by stairs, and the cobbled courtyard space may be difficult for some to navigate.
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