Ashes: The Alchemy of Hope
Directed and choreographed by Deirdre Morris
With Consuelo Marie, Corinna MacNeice and Kayo Muller
Friday-Sunday, June 1-3
Wise Fool Studio
2778 Agua Fria Road, Unit D
Achieving a rare magic, Ashes: The Alchemy of Hope unfolds in relentlessly surprising layers, using the simplest of materials. Not a play, exactly, (although there is certainly a story), nor a dance piece, nor performance art (thankfully), the wordless Ashes could be called "essential theater"-an art form so ancient and archetypal that it's simultaneously as close as the blood, bone and muscle around the brain.
For example, the details of the stage and set emerge from the shadows, even before the performance begins: three lights hung low, egg-shaped, shaded in rice paper; a circle of stones center stage, perhaps a fire pit or a well; a tall, thin and gray/silver puppet, or perhaps a performer on stilts holding perfectly still, or a dead tree, behind three thin black veils; a large white sheet hung against the upstage blacks; an illuminated, green pupa-esque oddity; two large projection screens; and what looks like a pile of cloth downstage left, covering the hint of human form.
It's a dreamscape, a ritual space, an arrangement of disparate elements that begin to cohere as the piece unfolds, a sere and minimalist stage sculpture that flowers into surprisingly vivid, tactile and luxuriant life. Designed by Meat Puppet Theatre, the eerie and otherworldly join the mundane and familiar in rare balance.
This blend of the world we know with a world completely alien reflects the mythic power of the performance, which launches with a prerecorded video piece featuring Dierdre Morris, the director, choreographer and costume designer. Morris' physical theater draws on Butoh, the Japanese form of dance that emerged post-Hiroshima, characterized by extremely exaggerated muscular tension and achingly slow tempo. Morris incorporates other worlds of movement as well, and the result is a sense of the character fathomlessly immediate, ecstatic and agonized existences flayed bare. Morris' reshaping of space creates a sense of constant emergence, energized by every raw detail of experience.
Stage performers Consuelo Marie, Corrina MacNeice and Kayo Muller articulate Morris' physical theater with tremendous skill. Morris, in choosing to extend her vocabulary to other performers and take the risk of creating ensemble pieces imbued with her exacting standards, shows herself as an evolving adventurer. The performers clearly embrace the experience, lovingly crafting a seamless and coherent whole. Inscrutably intentional, the gestures and movements of the performers embody the dreamlike super-reality required by the piece. Only after the piece has evolved does one realize that it's divided into distinct scenes, a tribute to both director and performers.
The impeccable lighting design by Kierstan Pickens, the delicate shadow puppetry that emerges from behind unexpected screens, the recorded and live video artistry of Joe Picard and the evocative, richly conceived live soundscapes of musicians Jeremy Bleich and Yozo Suzuki all meld perfectly.
The elements of what makes live performance unique, of why theater continues to be an indispensable art form in a world of reproducible media, are laid bare and reverently brought to existence in Ashes. That the piece begins with Morris on film, lost in a wilderness of mud, stone ruins and distant horizons and transitions to real time (extra credit: When and where does Morris's video end?) especially highlights the immediacy, sensuality and ritual potency of theater itself.
The hour passed very quickly, as if time stood still and decided to watch.