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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A flexing of muscles in an interdisciplinary volley for serve: Urban Garden's SOMEWHERE OUT THERE

Posted by on Tue, Sep 6, 2011 at 11:02 AM

Urban Gardens SOMEWHERE OUT THERE, at Antfarm Studios
  • photo by Amy Quinn
  • Urban Garden's SOMEWHERE OUT THERE, at Antfarm Studios
SOMEWHERE OUT THERE
3.5 stars
out of 5
Urban Garden Performing Arts
Antfarm Studios
Closed Sep. 2

There’s—always—more than one way to envision a script.

It’s an early assignment in a directing class. The students are given the same text—say, Come and Go, Samuel Beckett’s self-described dramaticule. Their assignment is unambiguous: stage the brief one-act, exactly as it’s written—without collaborating with one another.

As such things go, you’d think it would be something of a theatrical no-brainer. Beckett’s dialogue is riddled with stage directions, conspicuous in their precision. They cover all elements of a production: set, costume, lighting and blocking—down to the exact placement of the actors’ hands and the vocal stresses in individual lines. Beckett’s artistic vision was nothing if not explicit.

A week passes. The artists work with different actors, and bring their scenes to class. Not only are no two productions identical; frequently, no two are significantly alike. The point is made: Even when a text is as exacting as Beckett’s—and even when a grade in grad school’s on the line—different artists can be all but guaranteed to see the same work differently.

But something interests us even more than the three different versions of SOMEWHERE OUT THERE that Urban Garden Performing Arts explored at Raleigh’s Antfarm Studios last Friday night. It’s the singularly different concept P.J. Maske has utilized in producing—as opposed to directing—it.

Maske is an actor, movement director, stage director—and producer—whose visibility on the region’s artistic radar is just now on the rise. She’s achieved regional recognition over the past year and a half for mainstage roles in Burning Coal Theatre’s productions of SECCA and The Shape of the Table, and her meticulous recent work as Helena in Koka Booth Amphitheatre’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.

In between she’s directed and appeared in site-specific historical works for Burning Coal, acted and contributed movement direction in regional independent films (including Stalemate, which took best picture in June at the Staten Island Film Festival), and taught classes at Raleigh Little Theatre.

John Jimerson and Paul Kilpatrick, in Urban Gardens SOMEWHERE OUT THERE
  • photo by Amy Quinn
  • John Jimerson and Paul Kilpatrick, in Urban Garden's SOMEWHERE OUT THERE
But Somewhere Out There is the third regional offering by Urban Garden, the name Maske gives her collaborative work among artists from various disciplines to produce multi-media performances, in her own words, “in, for and with community.”

Last September, Maske collaborated with local clothing designer Gabrielle Duggan and model Monica Damron on Spectrum Spectre, a movement and design installation at Raleigh City Museum.

This June, she worked with dancer Heather Cannaday to stage various enactments of the songs of Liz Janes—as Janes performed them, live, during the Musicoal live music series at Burning Coal. Maske and Cannaday performed simple household chores (and spare choreography) during some numbers: folding sheets, sewing on a sewing machine, typing on a manual typewriter—all of which were miked as accompanying instruments, interacting with Janes’ guitar and voice. The result turned the concert into something, in Janes’ words, “like a one-act play.”

So far, so imaginative, in works taking the theatrical into innovative territory.

But by comparison, last Friday’s event may have been more about expanding artistic infrastructures, relationships—and audiences—off stage than extending artistic boundaries on stage.

In producing three different iterations of playwright David Rabinowitz’ ten-minute play—which Maske directed in its world premiere during 2010’s 10 by 10 Festival in Carrboro—these artists had the opportunity to explore alternative subtexts and interpretations, and a chance to ask, “In how many directions can the same words lead us?”

For the most part, that regrettably didn’t happen. Aside from pursuing one change-up in the audience’s relationship to the performance—invoking their participation in one sequence—the production seemed primarily concerned with solving basic physical staging problems in three different, non-theatrical environments: in the cramped gallery and studio spaces at Antfarm, and on the lawn outside.

During the three iterations, only an engaging John Jimerson demonstrated much in the way of bandwidth in varying takes—sanguine, sarcastic and semi-manic, by degrees—of his character, the story’s narrator. Left unaltered: newcomer Paul Kilpatrick’s solid, friendly take on central character Pablo, a rather lonely young man whose life changed forever that night in the 1980s when he started hearing some extremely long-distance broadcasts on his Sony Walkman. Similarly duplicated were Alex Young’s brief but competent stand as Pablo’s companion and Samantha Corey and Lucius Robinson’s elliptical work as voices from space.

Alex Young and Paul Kilpatrick in Urban Gardens SOMEWHERE OUT THERE
Again, to be clear, I really can’t fault these actors’ characterizations. But I can critique a night that could have given up three different sides of a secret, but wound up basically repeating the same one in varying orientations to an audience instead. That result qualified this production more as a flexing of aesthetic muscles than a fully realized work of art—something of a volley for serve at the start of a season more than a definitive artistic statement.

And yet. This third Urban Garden production undeniably raises a number of questions that are particularly pertinent at the start of a new year in regional arts.

Exactly how many local playwrights get local productions, fully staged—once, much less in triplicate—each year? Just how often do actors in any of our regional cities get to perform in another? How many of last Friday’s theater-goers had never been to Antfarm before—and would never have gone there without the multi-media event Urban Garden staged? How many of them now know about Gabrielle Duggan’s fiber work, which the actors interacted with—and wore—in the iteration performed in the studio’s gallery?

And what would happen to regional arts—and audiences—if visual, fiber, metal and other gallery artists were regularly welcomed to collaborate, as equals, in interdisciplinary alliances with musical, theatrical and choreographic components, and stage their collaborations in each others’ work and presentation spaces?

All of these questions pose different possibilities (and challenges) in terms of how art grows in this community: how it is made, how it’s received, and how different artists—and audiences—can possibly interact and catalyze.

It's clear that the last Friday's viewing gave us a first glimpse of a set of intriguing alternative paradigms in production and performance that Urban Garden is interested in pursuing. We’ll be closely watching its future work. You should probably do the same.

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