Friday, July 12, 2013

Impressions on THE ASTRONAUT SESTINA

By Russ Bickerstaff
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As much as I try to enjoy all kinds of theatre, it's the abstract experimental stuff that I love the best . . . and the reason why might have something to do with how truly rare it is when such stuff gets staged. The most reliable name in local experimental theatre is Peter J. Woods, who opens a program this month called: The Astronaut Sestina and Other Short Plays.


The abstract and experimental work of Peter Woods seeks a kind of an interface with the audience and the stage that cannot be attained through a traditional narrative. And as a result, once again we see Woods testing the boundaries of narrative theater with a program of five pieces in an intimate studio theatre environment this summer. It's an interesting quintet of experiences. Here are a few impressions:


EMPTY VESSELS--The program starts with a piece featuring Woods with his back to the audience. He holds are ragged violin bow in his hand. He is bathed in green light. The stage holds a characteristic kind of darkness and shadow. 


The fight response to the darkness in a way that parallels motion responding to the noise that serves as a backdrop for the piece. A voice clearly be heard in the audio. And although specific sounds are quite audible, individual words are almost completely obscured. Words rest and potentiality on the verge of actualization in a moody, dreamlike piece.


ON BOREDOM--A stylish noise backdrop plays host to Woods as he sits near a roll of tape rotating, phonograph turntable. He's calling what appears to be a ragged strip of audiotape out of a wooden box as an oscillating plastic fan blows its way from audience two-stage and back. 


There's a beautiful kind of an active solitude about the piece. Clearly work is being done. In the due course of things the thread of tape gets more and more ragged.

Around us it is by the wind from the fan. By the end of the piece it's littering the floor for what ends up being the rest of the performance. The rest of the program.


This one has a kind of a visual complexity to it that works like a hauntingly shadowy moving still life. And because the visual complexity of the turntable and the audiotape and to be isolating fan are also simple and iconic the piece as I kind of elegant simplicity to it which makes for possibly the most harmonious piece on the program. This is a very cool and slickly ragged theatrical mood for Woods.


SEEKING GRACE, RATTLING TEETH--Woods brings what appears to be a perfectly fresh and blank piece of paper to the stage and looks to it for something that he''s not finding. So he crumples it up. But something draws him to uncrumple the sheet and study it again. . . only to crumble it back into a ball. 


The sound of the paper is amplified by a microphone pointed right at it. Time and again, he straightens out the page, studies it and then crumples it up again. Particles of the tattered sheet of paper begin t hang in the air illuminated by the light of a lamp which casts dramatic shadows over everything. 


There's a beautiful sense of desperation and futility about this short that seeps into the piece in a way that quickly becomes overwhelmed, amplified as it is by the audioscape that Woods has wallpapered the piece with. This one and On Boredom were my two favorites on the program. 


NOTES FROM WITHIN THE EPICENTER--appeared to me to be the least accomplished of the five. Not that it isn't an interesting ride. He's got two lights the swing around rhythmically in the darkness, The audioscape is aggressive and assaulting with tones that become very disorienting over time. Amplifying the dizzy disorientation are the swinging lights, which rhythmically flash powerful light against the darkness. The whole thing is very dizzying between discordant audio and powerful light thrashing its way into the audience. 


THE ASTRONAUT SESTINA: A PLAY IN WHICH THE AUDIENCE GOES DEAF--(the full title is only metaphorical in the context of the play.) Woods listens to his own voice deliver a second-person  description of a progression of different places. The recording is broken up into individual segments that are punctuated with a long and seemingly endless journey from the table at which Woods listens to the tape and over to a large tome. He opens a large book, moves a few pages and goes back to the table to listen to a little bit more of the recording. It's a very, very somber piece to end the show on. 


The Astronaut Sestina continues through July 20th at the Underground Collaborative on 161 West Wisconsin Avenue. For ticket reservations, visit Brown Paper Tickets.com. 



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