Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 1 February 2019

Review: NOW19 – Greg Wohead and Seke Chimutengwende, Yard Theatre

29th January - 2nd February

‘demonstrating how hard true understanding – of both oneself and of another – is to achieve’: Kate Wyver writes on the NOW Festival Week 3 double bill.

Kate Wyver

Call it a Day at the Yard Theatre. Photo: Maurizio Martorana

gedudel ee (show one)

Arcola County, Illinois, is located at 39°41′1″N 88°18′21″W (39.683545, -88.305844). Imagine if you could describe a person with that level of precision.

Мен, чынында эле, башка адамды түшүнүүгө мүмкүн эмес деп ойлойм.

Ech wonnere wann et net méiglech wier eng aner Persoun ze verstoen.

Ik vraag me af of het onmogelijk is om een ander echt te begrijpen.

Nashangaa kama haiwezekani kuelewa mtu mwingine.

Tôi tự hỏi nếu không thể thực sự hiểu người khác.*

Greg Wohead viscerally describes slicing a person from the top to the bottom. He peels back their flesh and steps inside, explaining the process of untangling bone and sinew as he pushes his body into theirs, popping his head through their neck and seeing through their eyes.

^ on acting.

……….

Circling a maybe-memory of a cold afternoon in January 2009 when Greg and his then partner Hetty went to visit Martha and Samuel, an Amish couple in Arcola County, Call It A Day examines how hard it is to get into someone else’s head, on or off stage.

There are no bonnets; all four actors (Tim Bromage, Mireya Lucio, Amelia Stubberfield and Wohead) are dressed in earthy-coloured cords. They sit round a wooden table and chat. The two couples have entirely different lifestyles, politics and beliefs, so they try small talk. They chat about their lack-of-or-abundance-of-children and ask questions about each other’s lives. It’s mundane stuff, almost numbingly polite. Then they switch seats and do it all again.

Wohead’s memory of their conversation that afternoon repeats. The same story is told multiple times, evolving and growing stranger with each retelling, adding burnt raisins and blackouts. One person bathes in apple butter and another dances on a table. Throughout, their movements are neutral, Sims-like, following the instructions of whoever is in control of the microphone.

It would be easy to stereotype the Amish couple as old-fashioned and out of touch. Instead, Wohead reaches for a kind of understanding. Wohead catches a glint in his neighbour’s eye, the lights dim and he crawls over to listen, trying to catch what they really mean as they chat domesticities. Each time, he slinks back to his chair, unsuccessful.

Trading characters by no more than switching seats – no affectations are taken for any of the four individuals – they deal cards anew from a pile on the table. The cards have handwritten instructions with instructions or prompts, determining what will happen next in the same-or-similar version of events. There are elements of improvisation here, with a ribbing of Wohead (“I’m Gregory Michael Wohead and I’ve been trying and failing to grow a moustache for two weeks”) a repeated thread, and subtle challenges thrown at each other like rounds of Just A Minute.

The whole atmosphere is comforting and safe, Dan Saggars’ lighting and Ben Babbitt and Maxwell Sterling’s sound melting around the mood changes. It’s political but it never gets angry. Arcola County is primarily republican, and voting statistics are projected on the wall but neither regarding politics or religion is there ever  a sense of desired conversion or pressure. At one point I think I want anger – how can you be polite when everything’s such a mess? – but while this is a piece about change, it’s not about changing others. It’s not presented as Greg and Hetty vs Samuel and Martha, rather that all four are caught in a mess of trying and failing to get each other. In their drawn-out jokes, parrotted confessions and endless repetitions, each couple is as strange as the other; each as unreachable, unreal, unknowable. We learn that Greg and Hetty aren’t together anymore. They don’t dwell, but it’s another reminder of how hard other people are to understand.

Call It A Day veers between an abundance of and a lack of hope. As an introduction, Wohead speaks in Pennsylvania Dutch, the language Samuel and Martha speak and one that isn’t available on Google Translate. English subtitles are projected behind. It’s an effort to reach across the divide, but fed into Wohead’s ear, he’s just repeating sounds he can’t translate, his words devoid of meaning. Two of Samuel and Martha’s children come downstairs and the rituals of language and belief are passed on again.

In Wohead’s work, making theatre is an attempt to bring people and ideas to life, and acting is an effort to understand them. In a generous, calm performance, Call It A Day demonstrates how hard true understanding – of both oneself and of another – is to achieve.

*Kan geen 100% nauwkeurigheid bevestigen.

 show two

Plastic Soul at Yard Theatre. Photo: Maurizio Martorana

Plastic Soul at Yard Theatre. Photo: Maurizio Martorana

This bit’s harder.
I find that writing about a particularly abstract piece of performance art can go one of two ways. Sometimes there’s joy in finding meaning or suggestion from a thrust of an arm or the turn of a phrase. It’s exciting trying to piece together the clues the performer has laid for you; often it’s not about intention but interpretation. Other times, it’s like being sat by yourself with a hundred sets of earphones to untangle. In my notes for Plastic Soul, there’s a corner of a page which has two lines written over each other, something intelligible crossed out and then: “???????”

Seke Chimutengwende’s show is broken up into a) sections of talking heads faux-authentically discussing philosophical and performance theories, and b) moments of song that transcend into squiggles of movement in a variation of shiny costumes.

Each musical interlude notes a change in form for Plastic, an imagined artist. Plastic Soul the play traces the rise and fall of Plastic the performer. Plastic morphs from alien – star – atom – insect – entertainer – prophet – machine – word – gesture, with the stand-up style of performance changing into a wriggling creature on the floor over time.

With each transformation, there’s new light, new song, new outfit. By the end of the performance, he’s rolling round in a plastic overcoat and running half naked into the audience. The music is sampled across eras and genres, ranging from 60s doowop to nursery rhyme to funk. Though mixed well, the songs are so cheesy, it’s hard to tell if they’re dull by design.

In between music, the talking heads (Season Butler, Charlotte Cooper, Justin Hunt, Harold Offeh, Efrosini Protopapa & George Shire) unpick the development of Plastic’s career. They pity or celebrate him, spotting his missteps and successes, discussing the impact of performative authenticity and the destruction of art under capitalism. The false sincerity of the commentary is best when it leans into the satire and slyly acknowledges its own ridiculousness.

Chimutengwende is clearly a talented and agile performer – he’s worked with DV8 and Fabulous Beast – but however many forms his character morphs into, there’s never one that makes us laugh out of anything other than exasperation. His movements lack depth, but nor do they dwell on the shallowness long enough to make a statement. They’re better for the photos they’ll make than the moment of performance. And the photos will look good; it’s beautifully done. Annie Pender’s costumes are sparkling and Marty Langthorne’s lighting radiates – red, green, blue – off Chimutengwende as he sings and later as he writhes. Squares of white light emerge and he lollops like a caterpillar.

Plastic Soul is about performance in a world that doesn’t give monetary value to high concept art, so perhaps my dislike is the desired reaction. But when one commentater in a video suggests that by scrapping language and moving to gesture, Plastic is no longer marketable, therefore losing his place in a capitalist society as an artist, I can’t help feeling that he’d lost me from the beginning.

Each song is marked by a costume change. After a while I start counting how how many outfits are left on the rail to see how close we are to the end.

Call it a Day and Plastic Soul are on at Yard Theatre as part of NOW19 Festival until 2nd February. More info here. 

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Kate Wyver is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: NOW19 – Greg Wohead and Seke Chimutengwende, Yard Theatre Show Info


Written by Greg Wohead; Seke Chimutengwende

Cast includes Tim Bromage, Mireya Lucio, Amelia Stubberfield, Greg Wohead; Seke Chimutengwende

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