Thursday, July 16, 2015

38 (2015-2016): Review of ADA/AVA (seen July 15, 2015)

"There Were Never Such Devoted Sisters"

Stars range from 5-1.

It has no dialogue, its methods have a deceptively primitive (in the best sense) quality, and its story is rather simple, but ADA/AVA—an award-winning multimedia piece created in 2010 by a Chicago troupe called Manual Cinema, and subsequently toured internationally—offers one of the most hypnotically engrossing hours in the theatre you’re likely to spend. Presented here in collaboration by Three-Legged Dog and The Tank, the work was created by Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Ben Kauffman, Julia Miller, and Kyle Vetger, designed by Dir, Fornace, and Miller, and performed by Miller as Ava and Kara Davidson as Ada, with Dir, Fornace, and Evan Garrett in their support. ADA/AVA is a shadow puppet play with a distinctive twist.
From left: Drew Dir, Sam Deutsch, Sarah Fornace, Lizi Breit, Julia Miller. Photo: Howard Ash. 
Instead of puppeteers holding up flat puppet figures between a single light source and a sheet, as in much Asian shadow puppet theatre (where only a single puppeteer with many puppets is likely to be present), the chief light sources here are four conventional overhead projectors placed before two screens, a smaller one below and a larger one above. The audience of around 60 sits on bleachers facing this arrangement. The puppeteers stand with their backs to the audience and handle dozens of two-dimensional items representing humans, props, and scenic backgrounds, placing them in perfectly coordinated sequences on the projectors as the story of Ada and Ava is enacted, with their characters played both by two actresses and by multiple shadow puppets allowing for changes in age and size. The lower screen, in front of which the live action occurs, shows a reverse image of what’s seen on the upper screen, so we get a split effect, one showing how it’s done and the other the result.
From left: Julia Miller, Lizi Breit. Photo: Howard Ash.  
The actresses move back and forth between the projectors and the lower screen, where they interact with images cast by other puppeteers, a process so seamless you might even think they’re actually climbing ladders or doing other such physical activities. Occasionally, another puppeteer will also join the action, even if only to provide a life-like hand for an otherwise stationary shadow. Ada and Ava are identical twins, silver-haired traditional spinsters in their seventies, wearing black dresses, their shoulders rounded by age; to heighten the effect of their silhouettes the actresses wear exaggerated masklike profiles.
From left: Sarah Fornace, Sam Deutsch, Drew Dir. Photo: Howard Ash. 
The inseparable Ada and Ava live in a lonely light house high on a New England bluff (cue the seat-rattling thunder and lightning!), where the old-fashioned wallpaper backs numerous framed silhouette pictures of them, showing the sisters from childhood on. Flashbacks reveal the sisters as playful children, with their petty conflicts, such as struggling for possession of a shell at the beach; in the present they make tea, play chess, attend to their lighthouse duties, and live a life of quiet contentment, until Ava succumbs to the inevitable, leaving Ada like one whose very soul has fled. Seeking recovery from her loss, Ada visits a carnival and enters a hall of mirrors (mirror images play a big role throughout the piece), where she’s overwhelmed by her grief for Ava and goes on a phantasmagorical mind trip, expressed by marvelous, often ghostly, special effects. Ultimately, she’s able to find peace from her sorrow until she and Ava are able to be together again.
From left: Drew Dir, Sam Deutsch, Sarah Fornace. Photo: Howard Ash. 
Accompanying the performance is an almost nonstop background of music and sound effects, the exceptional original score by Vetger and Kauffman employing a remarkable variety of musical styles, including jazz, big band, and carnival calliope; Vetger does cello and Rhodes piano, Kauffman does vocals, guitar, and synthesizer, and Maren Celest plays clarinet and also sings “All of Me” and “In My Solitude” with a Billie Holiday vibe.

The general effect is like an animated film, except that it’s all being created right before our eyes as we watch. This, however, has its drawbacks, since the constant presence of the performers performing and the use of the double screen draws attention to the process and, while increasing respect for the “how” of what’s being shown, detracts from the “what.” Others have argued on behalf of this approach, and my companion had no problem with it. I, however, despite my appreciation for the expertise and ingenuity, would have esteemed these more if only the opening minutes showed how the thing is done, after which a curtain might have slid on to hide the process, allowing me to focus without distractions on the story and its execution.

Moods of melancholy and dread dominate, and several supernatural moments can be chilling, but lighter feelings also thread their way through the narrative as we get to know these wordless siblings and to understand the depth of their connection. Aside from my quibbles about its mechanics, ADA/AVA is an exceptional piece of devised theatre definitely worth a visit to its downtown venue.

Other Viewpoints:

3LD Art and Technology Center
80 Greenwich Street, NYC
Through July 26