Review: ‘Sans Everything’ by Lightning Rod Special + Strange Attractor at FringeArts

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Sans Everything is a collaboration between the theater companies Lightning Rod Special (“LRS”) and Strange Attractor Theatre Co. (“SATC”). The title comes from Jaques’ famous “Seven ages of man” speech in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Describing the set up is difficult, although LRS’s Alice Yorke and Scott Sheppard, both of whom perform in the piece, give it a good stab in a FringeArts blog post. To take my own rough stab, at some point after humans have ceased to exist, eight artificial intelligences, AIs, have been placed inside human bodies and deposited in what seems to be a rather sterile, Danish modern, enclosed patio (set and lights are by Masha Tsimring). The first words we hear are an electronically distorted “This is a good place to stop. Right here.” The narrative, such as it is, follows the AIs’ discovery, each in his or her own way (one of them, who names herself “Saw,” is disappointed: “I was supposed to arrive as a ficus”), of the benefits and limitations of these human bodies, including love, poetry, and mortality.

The cast of Sans Everything. Photo by Johanna Austin.

Fairly early on, the voice abandons the characters. As they attempt to cope as autonomous individuals, the piece gains strength (I’m curious whether, for future iterations of this piece, the company might find a way to motivate the beginning without this “demigod.”) “Simon’s” character explores pain, “Foon” is curious how things work (which leads at one point to a marvelous sequence playing the blinds rhythmically),” “Saw” is drawn to plants, “Bay” toward sensuality with several of her fellows. Rebecca Kanach’s costumes assist this narrative. As their personalities develop, the characters gradually change from silvery unitards toward “normal” clothing: “Breathing,” the most childlike, remains in his unitard.

The success or failure of devised pieces like this often rests, in addition to the craft of the performances, on the way the theme(s) can be riffed upon theatrically: the successful ones owe more to Miles Davis or Philip Glass than Ibsen or Arthur Miller. The “felt” logic of the work is what’s important: how images, phrases, movements, echo and resonate with each other; what sort of “story” rhythmic and tonal changes create; and do the creators recognize when they’ve reached the end of their inventiveness. (This also means that a reviewer’s interpretation may or may not be related to the creators’ intentions.) For a brand new work, Sans Everything is successful at all of this. More impressive to me, at the point where the conventional narrative element of the piece – the development of individual personalities – starts to peter out (in my opinion), the work seemed to mutate into something new and beautiful. A carnivalesque scene is followed by a solo moment, played with exquisite slowness, where “Saw” achieves her dream of becoming a plant. This is followed by the wrestling scene from As You Like It. This is usually a fun scene to stage in a production of Shakespeare’s play, but is not one of the iconic scenes from the play. For that matter, few Bardolators would single out As You Like It as the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s achievement. But we get the wrestling scene, performed in deliriously giddy costuming. Three times, with slight variations. It’s almost completely separate from the hour’s performance preceding it, yet entirely dependent on what has come before, and feels like magic. It’s followed by another, wordless sequence that would sound banal in description but felt  (that word again!) intensely poetic, moving, and a “logical” progression toward a final moment that again draws upon an image from earlier, now transformed into an affirmation of live performance as a human(e) endeavor, the resistance of life to annihilation.

The performers/creators are not identified by their characters, so I will just list them: Roblin Gray Davis, Jed Hancock-Brainerd, Katie Gould, Jennifer Kidwell, Mason Rosenthal, Scott Sheppard, Clara Weishahn, and Alice Yorke. Aram Aghazarian is credited with the original concept, and Rebecca Noon directed. All deserve praise for their work. Brad Pouliot’s sound design supports the mood and action throughout the evening.

Although Sans Everything plays for only three performances now, I hope audiences will get many opportunities to see it in the future.

Sans Everything plays through tomorrow, February 11, 2017, at FringeArts – 140 North Columbus Boulevard, at Race Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets call the box office at (215 413-9006, or purchase them online.

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