Imagine a jazzier, sweeter take on the Wooster Group, add the intellectual earnestness of the TEAM, stir in a dash of sixties girl-group cool and some Wizard of Oz references and you get an idea of the aesthetic of the Van Reipen Collective, the interdisciplinary group making a stunning FringeNYC debut with Shelly's Spherical Journey. In this piece, the Van Reipen Collective build on the established conventions of experimental theatre, developing an idiosyncratic, charming style all their own.
Shelly's Spherical Journey charts the story of Shelly "the Shell," a 37-year-old woman on the brink of midlife crisis. She yearns to break free from her dead-end life, desperately wanting to flee the crumbling Motel Sunshine that's been in her family for four generations and start a new life in an ancestral castle in Circassia. When her dreams go up in smoke, will she fall apart, or survive?
The narrative of this seemingly conventional story drives forward a theatrical event that combines music, movement, and improvisation in ways that are never predictable. The show begins with the sound of moth wings hitting a light bulb—a fleeting, familiar reference that unexpectedly grows into an extraordinary recurring motif by the evening's end, becoming the centerpiece for a surprising final image. Other ordinary objects—antiseptic hotel sheets, toilet brush wands, tube socks—undergo similar totemic transformations, evoking the people and ghosts who haunt Shelly's strange world. Supplementing the startling imagery is a lively score that mixes jazz, doo-wop, acoustic guitar, and everything in between—the juxtaposition of unexpected styles provides the work with much of its power. Actors will suddenly burst into a girl-group chorus while contemplating the purpose of their existence, or curl into an eerie lament on top of a hotel cleaning cart.
In a pre-festival interview, co-creator/director and star Cassandra Victoria Chopourian explained that improvisation was key to shaping the work—and it shows in the cast's quick, sharp changes in character and emotion from moment to moment. A seduction scene in which Shelly sings of the glories of fast food on the highway to two perspective guests, for example, dissolves into her recurrent despair of being stuck behind the motel counter, reading well-worn 1980s catalogs as the world goes by without her.
Chopourian imbues the main Shelly with pathos and unexpected humor. As the other, "Shellies"—a Greek chorus who play the other people and ghosts in Shelly's life, as well as reflections of herself—Cari Bell and Christina Glick display quirky charm and precise versatility as well as powerful singing voices.
Christopher Weston's economical, ingenious production design instantly evokes the dingy hotel that is Shelly's home with nothing more than a housekeeping cart, piles of sheets and towels, and battered suitcases. Costuming is eclectic—the main Shelly is in ordinary jeans and a pink shirt, while the chorus Shellies resemble '80s Madonna by way of Glinda, dressed in white prom dresses, white fingerless gloves, jean jackets, lots of rhinestone jewelry and tiaras.
In all, Shelly's Spherical Journey is a powerful, unconventional work about finding your way through the maze of life that's as poignant as it is humorous.