nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 8, 2007
Synesthesia is a singular evening of art/performance, created by Electric Pear Productions in collaboration with a dozen artists; it's one of the more laudable and unusual theatre events in a month that's been full of them (e.g., Rising Phoenix's rest-room play Rules of the Universe, bluemouth's American Standard in a barbershop, The Pod Project, etc.) Think of a bona fide variety format like the old Ed Sullivan show, updated and expanded to reflect the state of contemporary culture, and you get an idea of what Synesthesia is about. In just under two hours, audiences are taken on a journey that includes storytelling, dance, conceptual theatre, photography, music, comedy, and film—all of it linked together structurally and (sort of) thematically.
The premise of the event is a variation on the child's game of "telephone"; you remember: person one makes up a message, tells it to person two, who then passes it on to person three and so on, the object being to see how different the final version is from the original one. Here, the message is a piece of art, passed sequentially through eleven different hands in eleven different genres. The starting point was a short story by Scott Korb (itself inspired by the fortune inside a randomly selected fortune cookie). Korb's story was read by photographer Steve Spehar, who created a photo essay in response to it; Spehar's photos were then viewed by another writer, Benjamin Percy, who wrote a story inspired by what he saw in the pictures. And so on, through the following list of artists: One Ring Zero (musicians), Beth Kurkjian (dancer/choreographer), Ohad Meromi (artist), Rebecca Drysdale (comedian), Jeremy Parise (musician), Darian Dauchan (slam poet), Performance Lab 115 (conceptual theatre), and finally Ben Greenman (writer).
Unlike the kids' game, where preserving meaning is the key objective, all the participants here appear to have been encouraged to not only translate the work they experienced into their native medium, but more importantly to respond viscerally to it. Given that, it's surprising how many ideas somehow managed to get transmitted from artist to artist. For the most part, though, we're witnessing unexpected wellsprings of creativity from end to end: the connections these people made to get from source material to original work aren't always clear or evident in the final products.
What we see in performance at Synesthesia is, well, the synthesis of this unusual experiment. It's well thought-out and beautifully presented, with a film (by Gregory Stuart Edwards) framing all the parts of the evening. Documentary footage introduces each of the artists to us, followed by performances or demonstrations (mostly live) of the products that each artist created. So what the audience experiences is a multimedia variety show, with a virtual "host" on film and a succession of "acts": actors Hanna Cheek and Stacy Parker read Korb and Percy's stories; Kurkjian performs her solo dance piece; Drysdale does a stand-up routine; Parise sings an original composition, accompanying himself on guitar; Dauchan performs his poetry; P.L. 115 presents a miniature one-act; and Greenman reads his own story. (The contributions by Spehar, Meromi, and One Ring Zero are shown/played on video.)
I imagine that every spectator's response is going to be unique, based on their relationship with the various kinds of art that comprise Synesthesia. Indeed, one of the most interesting things I noticed as I watched and listened was my heightened awareness of how I was relating to each of the theatrical forms on the bill: the musical selections seemed to touch me the most, along with the purely visual segments; the narrated stories felt like they provided too much information, reining in my imagination, while the abstract movement pieces provided too little. But that's me: your results should be different.
But whatever you enjoy or draw from the evening, the program itself must be viewed as a significant success for Electric Pear, who have produced this incredibly complicated show with great assurance and style. I'm not entirely convinced that the eleven pieces of original art that got birthed by this process are all terrific, but the package as a whole is. I'll look forward to what this innovative company decides to do next.