Mysticism & Music, currently playing at Constellation Theatre Company, is a show that does not work. Despite the undeniably engaging music by the composing team of Chao Tian (an intensely focused Chinese dulcimer player) and Tom Teasley (a world-class percussionist) and despite the dogged enthusiasm of the cast, the production does not work.
The script does not lack for profundity. The text consists of meditations and other thoughts by acknowledged wise and spiritual people and from ancient and timeless sacred texts. A few of the sources included are Tao Te Ching, The Book of Job, Genesis, The Bhagavad Gita, Martin Luther King, Toni Morrison, Thich Nach Hahn. Under the direction of Allison Arkell Stockman, the performance consists of these texts collaged together and illustrated with choreographic imagery of shifting body shapes (Choreography: Tony Thomas II) that are swathed by and swimming amidst colored cloth (Costumes, Fabric, and Fan Designer: Frank Labovitz; Properties Designer: George “Tommy” Wang). But the show goes nowhere.
The show has no plot, which would not be a problem if the ritual of movement and sound that accompanies it were sufficient to connect the audience’s consciousness to the text, the performers, and their fellow audience members. But in this case, it isn’t.
Here’s an example of how this connection falters:
The cast at one point tosses imaginary objects back and forth among themselves as the text is spoken. This is a classic theater exercise that anyone in an improv class has performed. It is used to connect the performers to each other and to focus their attention. Ideally, the performers’ concentration is such that the audience that is watching also “sees” the object being exchanged. In this production, however, the actors never seem to quite “see” the imaginary object. The receiver often seems to lose the object midway in its journey. The arrival of the object at its destination — inevitably in the appropriate size, shape, and weight — is underscored by a percussive emphasis. So we, the audience, accept that the object is presumed to have arrived. But we don’t quite believe the journey it is supposed to have made. This is emblematic of what — for me — happens with the entire production. We hear these profound statements about our humanity. But we don’t quite see, feel, or believe how they are supposed to be connected to us in our present context.
For the most part, I never felt the performers connected with what they were saying or doing. The notable exception to this was the very first moment of the show during which the performers read responses the audience had written to the prompt: “Over the past 18 months I lost or missed out on ____________.” This moment was clear. Both audience and performers were in agreement on the source and purpose of the text and what it meant for it to be shared in this space. This understanding was not present with other texts that were shared during the performance.
Similarly, the audience was supplied with a rhythm egg (egg shaker) with which to participate in certain percussion moments with the performers. Unfortunately, it wasn’t clearly articulated when these moments should be. It wasn’t disastrous. It was, however, an opportunity to connect that remained unfulfilled, and a further example of what was misfiring in the production.
The set by A.J. Guban is aesthetically pleasing, engaging, and meditative to look at. It consists of a long platform backed by a neutral-colored and textured wall. The wall is punctuated by a series of discreetly ensconced entrances/exits. Both the wall and platform span the entire upstage area. Surrounded by a low wall in front of this platform is the orchestra pit in which both musicians are seen and heard throughout the performance.
The atmosphere of the space was warm, welcoming, and coherent on this autumn evening. It provided a welcome respite from the neon-and-siren-drenched hubbub of the 14th & U Street corridor outside the theater doors.
I was grateful that the spoken voice and the percussion were not at war with each other in this production. That’s largely due to the unobtrusive and seamless work of sound engineer Gordon Nimmo-Smith.
The actors were engaging to watch and hear. I look forward to the next effort that everyone involved in this production makes.
Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes with no intermission
Mysticism & Music can be viewed either in person or on demand. In-person performances run through November 7, 2021, at CulturalDC’s Source Theatre, 1835 14th Street NW, Washington DC (between 14th and T). In-person tickets are $10–$49 plus fees. Video On Demand is available from November 2 to 21, 2021. Patrons who purchase a Video On Demand ticket will receive a link to stream the filmed production anytime during the virtual run. Patrons will have a 72-hour window in which to enjoy the show. Video On Demand tickets are $20 per household plus fees. Tickets for both in-person or streaming may be purchased by calling the Box Office at (202) 204-7741 or online.
COVID SEATS: A limited number of $10 tickets for each in-person performance are available to those who have been financially affected by the pandemic. Call the Box Office or visit our website to purchase. Additional fees apply.
DISCOUNTED TICKETS: Constellation will give away a pair of complimentary tickets for every in-person performance using a digital lottery, which may be entered on our website 48 hours before each performance. Groups of 4 or more are eligible for a 25% discount on regularly priced tickets. First responders, active/retired military personnel, teachers, and students are eligible for a 50% discount on regularly priced tickets. Additional fees apply. Please visit ConstellationTheatre.org/special-offers for more information.
COVID-19 SAFETY PLAN: All in-person audiences are required to provide proof of vaccination at the door and wear masks for the duration of the performance. For a comprehensive overview of Constellation Theatre Company’s policies, visit ConstellationTheatre.org/covid-safety-plan.
Mysticism & Music
based on a concept by Tom Teasley, Chao Tian, Nick Martin, A. J. Guban, and Allison Arkell Stockman
Music Composed and Performed Live by
Director: Allison Arkell Stockman
Choreographer: Tony Thomas II
Scenic & Lighting Designer: A.J. Guban
Musician & Composer: Tom Teasley
Musician & Composer: Chao Tian
Costume Designer: Frank Labovitz
Properties Designer: George “Tommy” Wang
Sound Engineer: Gordon Nimmo-Smith
Script Supervisor: Nick Martin
Production Stage Manager: Katie Moshier