nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 4, 2006
Metronoma, the new work by 31 Down Radio Theater, feels more like an installation than a play; and after I read all of the company's (fascinating) press materials after the show, and after my companion at the show logged on to the Net to learn more about H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Bloch (Metronoma's main characters), it became clear to me that unlike almost every piece of theatre I see, Metronoma needs cataloging and documentation—not so much because the context they provide will enhance enjoyment/understanding of the piece (though that's so), but because an appreciation of how this work has been created and performed is enriching and useful, all on its own.
The ethos of 31 Down, a company founded and led by artistic director Ryan Holsopple, is to use radio and other old technologies to create their theatre projects. Metronoma uses a rich soundscape, pre-recorded vocals, video, and a variety of nifty devices/special effects that range from a scary monster mask to the eponymous machine, an actual product made by Crystal Labs (according to the script, "a tube transistor-based electric metronome...[that] has a blinking orange light that blinks in time with the metronome"). All of these elements are incorporated within a sketchy narrative tracing a proposed meeting between sci-fi author Lovecraft and budding novelist Bloch (the latter would become famous for writing Psycho) that takes place in the fictional town where Lovecraft set many of his stories.
Basically what we see on stage are scenes of Bloch preparing for his meeting with Lovecraft—thinking, sleeping, shaving, dressing—interspersed with scenes of Lovecraft himself going through several common tasks in an off-kilter, ritualized style. Haunting/communicating with both men is Metronoma, a female specter/alien. The actors on stage never speak (except for a couple of lines near the end, when the sudden emergence of live sound from their throats is genuinely startling); all of the sounds and speeches are prerecorded (and, it turns out, managed by the actors on stage, though so seamlessly that we're never aware of this).
In between and/or around these vignettes are video sequences, mostly depicting Lovecraft pursuing Metronoma in a forest that's sometimes lush and bright and beautiful but occasionally is dark and forbidding. The video is projected on a screen (that turns out not to be a screen) and on the body of Metronoma herself; this latter technique provides the most memorably striking moments in the show.
If the foregoing description sounds disjointed and a little confused, well, that's how the show feels: coming to it without much knowledge of Lovecraft's work, from which apparently much of what happens here is painstakingly adapted, makes it hard to grasp the specific significance/meaning of many of the passages. Director Holsopple and Shannon Sindelar have written the scenario, and it is oblique and non-linear and sometimes hard for the uninitiated to follow.
But the moods that Holsopple and his collaborators are able to evoke are deep and many, and even though I didn't intellectually "get" what was happening much of the time in Metronoma, I found myself responding viscerally to it throughout. Those collaborators, by the way, include video artists Mirit Tal and Ariel Efron, lighting designer Jon Luton, designers Benjamin Brown, Matt Bua, and Jesse Berkowetz, and actors Shauna Kelly (Metronoma), Jonathan Valuckas (Lovecraft), and Mike Sharpie (Bloch).
Metronoma is a project created as part of the Ontological Theatre's Incubator residency series, and the laboratory/experimental quality of the piece is therefore part of its raison d'etre. It's fascinating but ultimately inaccessible theatre, something that could easily be rectified by providing audience members with materials to help them understand what they're seeing and how/why it's been created. Theatre shouldn't need instructions, but when it crosses the line into exhibition/installation—and the traditional rules of engagement are violated so rigorously—then context is crucial to appreciation of the art.