What remains is the [stillness] of objects
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
August 19, 2007
The most striking feature about what remains is the (stillness) of objects is the way its directors and creators, Jill A. Samuels and Hillary Spector, have structured its viewing so that it feels almost more like watching an experimental movie than a piece of theatre. Except for one brief sequence, the entire play takes place behind a giant red 12-paned screen, which has been segmented in such a way that each pane opens individually, creating a square window through which action can be viewed. Almost any combination of panes can also open simultaneously, up to and including opening all 12 at once to create something like a traditional proscenium—but this very rarely happens. The great majority of the play is viewed in carefully composed frames—small squares showing a single, stationary actor's torso—in close-up, as it were; horizontal slices showing a single plane; larger openings framing tableaus. We sometimes get the chance to view the same scene—a bedroom—from different angles; panels slide shut, the furniture changes position, and then when they open we're seeing the room from the other side. The play's abstractness is emphasized by Laylage Courie's elliptical and poetic text, by very stylized acting and movement, and by a strictly limited color palette—every object, costume, piece of furniture is either red, white, or black.
This physical conceit is stunning—but also distancing. I watched the play as a stream of images going by, rather than engaging with the story or its characters. Which isn't to say that the story is difficult to follow—two sisters, Maria and Karin, return to their ancestral home to keep vigil over their third sister, Agnes, who is dying. Maria and Karin seem to be somewhat estranged from both each other and from Agnes; their primary interest is in preparing and packing up all the family heirlooms to be dispersed after Agnes's inevitable death. Much of the play thus takes place in a state of limbo—Agnes has moments of alertness between days of pain; the sisters wait and try to find ways of re-connecting with each other. The only person who truly seems close to Agnes is the housekeeper, Anna, who herself has already lost a young daughter. (And the play's only moments of genuine emotion come between Agnes (Margot Ebling) and Anna (Alanna Medlock), who give the strongest performances). Agnes's ultimate death seems to free them all in some spiritual way.
Now, the program notes that the piece is inspired by and in dedication to Ingmar Bergman's film Cries and Whispers, which I haven't seen—but a little research tells me that the story, characters, and even the color palette of what remains all hew extremely closely to the film. And so maybe we're meant to view the play as a companion piece to the film, as a new look at the Bergman rather than an independent piece of storytelling.
But what remains in my mind is the parade of images—Agnes writhing in pain on her white, white bed; Maria and Karin sharing a plate of strawberries; Anna holding Agnes tenderly. Samuels and Spector succeed marvelously at creating a striking visual experience; they're less successful at creating an emotional one.