Three months ago, I reviewed the Wilma’s filmed performance of Will Arbery’s Heroes Of The Fourth Turning, which is clearly identifiable as a play. It features characters, a linear plot, conflict, and a denouement. Aristotle would be proud. The piece was an outstanding example of the type of work The Wilma has been doing for years and deserved its rave reviews. Do the Wilma’s experimental shows in its HotHouse Shorts streaming series, Expired and The Lagniappe Project, continue that excellence despite wide departures in format?
The artist’s mythology
Expired, from lead artist Ross Beschler and collaborators, is a mind-melting piece of video art that wouldn’t have been out of place in an exhibition at The Walker Center in Minneapolis or the Broad in LA. It mixes the interrogatory style of early Adrian Piper with the focus on the natural world of late-aughts Marina Abramović, while grounding the work firmly in the present with stills of BLM marches and retail corridors devastated by the pandemic. Expired is then topped with a soupçon of Dada and presented to the viewer as an 80’s-style Choose Your Own Adventure.
Discussing Expired is difficult because of this structure. The piece can be viewed in any order you wish, for as long as you wish. You can return to sections or skip them entirely. The premise of the work is that you are returning to a website to retrieve old files, but you can’t get in. After a few moments, it’s discovered that your password has expired. Once that detail is taken care of, off you go. The foundation of the collectively created work is classical Greek mythology, which allows exploration of themes such as temptation, self-control, and the thin line between life and whatever comes next. The use of mythology allows the artists to speak to the universal in a way that other groundings would not.
Overall, the acting is strong throughout, with Lindsay Smiling and Beschler as standouts. The one performance that seems a bit over-the-top was that of co-creator Suli Holum as Baroness Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhausen, a major yet neglected figure in the Dada movement. However, as a student of Dada performance, I can tell you that Holum’s performance is an accurate historical representation of what little we know about the Baroness. Huzzahs must also be given to co-creator Brenna Geffers of Die-Cast, who’s responsible for the show’s web design, which is the single most important feature of the experience.
What’s that? Experimental investigations of human agency in the face of dystopian futures not your jam? You’d prefer a Netflix-level/Bourdain-esque documentary about food, culture, history, and human connection? In under 15 minutes? Hold my beer, said the Wilma, and it created The Lagniappe Project, a piece featuring HotHouse company member Melanye Finster.
The Lagniappe Project is much more straightforward in its presentation and it is that very simplicity which makes it affecting. Finster partners with the Wissahickon-based nonprofit Northern Children’s Services, meets with the children and teens who are part of the program, and teaches them to make her family’s Creole gumbo. Along the way, we learn about gumbo as part of her cultural heritage, explore her need for community, and meet her mother, who taught Finster how to cook. “Lagniappe” refers to something extra that is given freely. For example, an extra beignet tucked into the box, or a piece of boudin hidden at the bottom of your shopping bag. Lovingly directed and edited by Briana Gause, the film itself is a yummy piece of lagniappe.
Are Expired and The Lagniappe Project theater? I say yes, but it’s a debate worth having. Are these two pieces to everyone’s taste? No, and Expired is by far the less accessible of the two. However, you should make time for these pieces. At the very least, you are watching extraordinarily talented craftspeople at work, and there is always the possibility you will witness something you have never seen before and are unlikely to ever see again.
Image description: A still from Expired. Against a background of fresh dirt with many earthworms in it, a screen is embedded. Actor Lindsay Smiling’s face appears on the screen. He has short, bushy gray hair and a short gray beard, an ornate costume of patterned red, purple and gold, and holds a large knot of rope in his hand.
What, When, Where
Expired. Created by Ross Beschler (lead artist), Suli Holum, Matteo Scammell, Lindsay Smiling, and Brenna Geffers. The Lagniappe Project. Created by Melanye Finster. Directed by Briana Gause. Stream for free (after registration) through July 31, 2021 at wilmatheater.org.
The Lagniappe Project is captioned.