Scattered on the grass with blankets, lawn chairs, and coolers, an expectant audience surrounded a gazebo in a semicircle on the Great Lawn of The Parks at Walter Reed. Inside the gazebo was a large instrument of sorts, resembling the love child of a church organ and a time machine. The casual yet mysterious setting was fitting for what was about to begin.
Rorschach Theatre’s production of Distance Frequencies: Transmission is the culmination of a monthslong project that began in October of 2020. Seven boxes were sent out to participants, with seven chapters referencing seven locations. The first chapter begins with a letter discovered at Rock Creek Cemetery.
For a more in-depth description of the boxes, see DCMTA’s previous article. But Rorschach provides a concise synopsis:
An unopened letter from 1935 launches a young artist on a decades-long quest, backward and forward through time. Immersed in back alley love stories, great floods, mysterious voices and a transom of unknown powers, the artist is left with a single question: Where do we go from here?
I was already familiar with the premise, from having experienced the virtual adventure, but for those who may have missed the previous chapters there was a handout with a timeline and breakdown of what was covered in the boxes, as well as a display set up in the trees next to the lawn.
This was to be my first live show since the beginning of the pandemic. I was more than a little excited. And I was not alone. The anticipation was palpable and the audience burst into applause when the first cast member finally appeared.
Frank Britton, playing Xavier, burst onto the scene with enthusiasm and greeted the audience, who had answered the invitation to unravel the mystery of the transom (which serves as a magical portal into another reality, dreamed into existence by one of the characters). Xavier is soon joined by his partner, Ernie (Ricardo Blagrove), who initially discovered the letters. They explain how they sent out the boxes to allow us to discover the clues the same way Ernie did, and to entice us to ultimately meet them for the final concluding experience.
Ernie, after years of searching, has found the transom and hooks it up to the large instrument in the gazebo, which, if all goes right, will find the right frequency and allow the history of the transom to play out in real time.
Sound Design (Gordon Nimmo-Smith) is an integral part of the show and everyone in the audience was provided with a set of headphones as they checked in. Ernie and Xavier cue to put them on as they start up the device. Distortion, distant voices, and shadows of sounds can be heard, accompanied by flashes of light. And then two more characters approach from a distance.
Judah (Erik Harrison) and Beatrice (Jessica Ludd) are half-siblings meeting in the dark of night at their recently deceased father’s grave. They are digging him up in search of a missing piece of the transom that he was known to always carry with him. The two are partially concealed by bushes but the sound effects of shovels in dirt and then the thud of hitting the coffin comes through the headphones.
Later more sounds and lights signify a different “signal” is being received and we see JJ (James Finley) and Angelina (Tara Whitney) walking together. They are pretending to be meeting for business but the two are in love. It’s 1900 and a love affair between a black woman and a white man is not popular.
Scenes continue to play out as the device cycles through different frequencies, and Ernie and Xavier, who are watching the scenes with the audience, discuss how they further the story.
We see Ernie and Xavier in the past, discussing the discovery of the transom. We see Beatrice (who we now know is Angelina and JJ’s daughter) and Judah (JJ’s son from marriage to another woman) talking about the perfect worlds they would see inside the transom, and how different those worlds would be. And we see Geraldine (Lorrie Smith Saito), a woman who used to work with Angelina in the past and befriends Ernie in the future, meeting with Angelina to tell her she is leaving her job, and the country, to be with a man she cannot marry in the U.S.
The transom connected all of the characters through time. Memories from the past and glimpses of the future were all coexisting with the present, on the lawn. And the audience was a part of the story too.
Director Jenny McConnell uses the entire space of Walter Reed’s Great Lawn for various scenes around the gazebo, which helps give the show an even more realistic feel of witnessing these memories. JJ and Angelina embrace under a large tree. Judah and Beatrice meet in a small wooded area.
As the sun set during the performance, the blue light emitted from the audience’s headphones added an ethereal glow to the ambiance. Whether this detail was accidental or planned, the effect was beautiful.
The entire experience was beautiful, honestly. The performances were genuine. The story was uniquely interesting and exciting. And every detail of the production seemed thought out to the finest point and executed with love.
Which was the entire ongoing theme. Love. The desire to make the world better, where love in any form can exist. The sacrifices we make, either for love or for doing the hard work to change the world for love.
Rorschach Theatre’s Distance Frequencies: Transmission is a thought-provoking piece of art. Celebrating love, adversity, and the struggle that comes with it. Full of mystery, passion, heartache, and hope, the show brings their original story to life and enchants with the magical idea of the transom that can make our utopian imaginings real.
And isn’t art its own transom? Something we escape into to see better versions of our world and to watch our dreams play out in limitless scenarios. In the search for the transom, we must also strive to make our reality more just, kind, and accepting. And then the search would be over. Our heaven would be our home.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Distance Frequencies: Transmission created by Rorschach Theatre plays through July 31, 2021, at the Great Lawn at The Parks at Walter Reed at 1010 Butternut Street NW Washington, DC. Tickets for the live performance are $40 and available online. The full Distance Frequencies experience (all seven chapters plus the live show) can be purchased online for $150. Student and senior discounts are available.
Safety Considerations for the Live Show
Rorschach will follow CDC and local guidelines with regard to outdoor masking requirements at the time of the performances. Audiences will have appropriately distanced seating areas throughout the Great Lawn. Hand sanitizer will be available and all Rorschach Theatre staff and artists will be vaccinated. Additional instructions will be sent to ticket holders prior to performances.
Rorschach Theatre Mission Statement
Through uncommon uses of environment and intimate passionate performances, Rorschach Theatre seeks to lure its audiences beyond the limits of ordinary theatrical experience so that they may discover new elements of their own humanity.
XAVIER: Frank Britton, ERNIE: Ricardo Blagrove, JUDAH: Erik Harrison, BEATRICE: Jessica Ludd, JJ: James Finley, ANGELINA: Tara Whitney, GERALDINE: Lorrie Smith Saito
Director: Jenny McConnell Frederick, Stage Manager: Allison Poms-Strickland, Assistant Stage Manager: Abby Wasserman, Technical Director: Devin Mahoney, Master Electrician: Elliott Shugoll, Visual Design Consultant / Model Box Creation (in the trees): Debra Kim Sivigny, Voice of Reginald Fessenden: Scott McCormick, Sound Engineer: James LaDow, Lighting Engineer: Kat Darnell, Box Office Manager: Michael Kyrioglou, House Manager: Kelsey Jenkins
Designed by Mel Bieler (Set), Moyenda Kulemeka (Costumes), James Morrison (Lights), Gordon Nimmo-Smith (Sound), Kylos Brannon (Video).
Created by Randy Baker, Kylos Brannon, Jenny McConnell Frederick, Roc Lee, Tosin Olufolabi, Doug Robinson, Debra Kim Sivigny, Jonelle Walker
Rorschach Theatre hits the jackpot with immersive ‘Distance Frequencies’ review of the previous chapters by Kendall Mostafavi
Rorschach Theatre’s ‘Distance Frequencies’ to finish live on lawn